When I headed out last month to San Francisco I was so excited to get to meet and listen to Ray Evernham, Former Crew Chief for Hendrick Motorsports, speak on the history of racing. We also heard from Cars 3 Creative Director Jay Ward. These two did a dynamic job of bringing the history of racing alive. So let’s learn the fun facts about the history of racing.
Let’s first start with the basics. What does NASCAR stand for?
National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. It was an acronym given by Bill Franz Sr when he got a group of guys together and started a legitimate league.
Jay: Where did NASCAR begin? Where does NASCAR get its roots? It actually all began in what we call the Moonshine Days when these guys used to run “product.”
Ray: Moonshiners would make their product and they’d need to get it to the towns and cities. And the easiest way to transport that stuff was by using guys who were called bootleggers, who would take stock-appearing cars and modify them. They were great at driving in them at nights through winding roads.
Jay: What happened was as these guys began racing against each other on the backroads they realized, “Oh I’m faster than you. I always get away from the cops.” They began to sort of say who was the fastest driver and they began to play against each other.
Ray: They started to take their cars instead of being on the road where nobody could see them, they brought them to the field so your buddy could see you beat the other guy. There actually became a strong rivalry between the Dawsonville Georgia Moonshiners and the North Carolina Wilkes Borough area moonshiners.
Jay: One day, Bill Franz comes along and says “Wait a minute, this could actually be a legitimate sport. This is kind of fun. Crowds are beginning to show up. People are actually going to pay to see these cars race. Maybe there’s something here beyond actually running moonshine.
Jay: They used to run these cars on the beach. People are standing up on fence posts taking photos. Safety was not a high priority at the time. These are cars from the late 30s.
Ray: 38 Ford Coupe was a great bootlegger car but this car was special because Randy Parks was one of the biggest moonshiners in the south and he hired the best drivers. his mechanic was Red Boyd who’s a champion crew chief.
Jay: By the early 50s, manufactures started saying, “Why are these guys running old cars? What if we ran one of our new cars out there and people saw how fast our cars were? Race on Sunday, sell on Monday.
Ray: The Fabulous Hudson Hornets. They’re longer, they’re lower, they’re rounder. They had good strong engines and suspension. They handled well. These cars were really fast and they dominated the sport.
Jay: When we worked on Cars 3 we thought, “Who would Doc run with back in the day?” Who did Doc race with all those championship years. We wanted to create these legend characters. So we actually looked at the history of the sport and we based our legends on the real legends.
Ray: I’m so proud of working with Pixar on this because this is the DNA of our sport. These legends are real people who formed NASCAR. That first one is Junior Johnson. There was a movie made about him with Jeff Bridges called the Last American Hero. Junior’s father was a moonshiner. Junior became a bootlegger. Great driver. Was arrested. Went to prison. Came out. Went on the straight and narrow. Became a stock car racer and champion driver. Transferred over to becoming a mechanic. Became a champion crew chief. Car owner. And then followed the corporate ladder and brought the first major sponsor to NASCAR. In fact, the first major Title sponsor.
Jay: That guy’s the whole package. And he’s still alive. We met him in North Carolina and he’s probably almost 80 years old. He’s a strong scrappy guy and he will give you his opinion. And he’s super cool. So we started talking to him and we realized this is one of our legends who is still alive. The car that inspired him was… this was actually his car. This is a real bootleggers car. And that inspired our Junior Jonson car. We took Junior Johnson as a character and Ray’s car and made a great character. And that’s our Junior Moon character.
Windell Scott had to overcome some serious diversity in the early days of the sport.
Ray: Amazing driver. Great mechanic. One of NASCAR’s highest level. And did all of this in the late 50s and 60s. Wendell is an African-American. He ended up being one of hte most popular drivers in NASCAR history and was inducted into the NASCAR HOF and was finally given all the awards he earned. He opened the doors for a lot of people who are still in the sport today.
Jay: So we had his grandson who was just so excited that we could finally feature this guy in a film in an exciting way. He’s a cool guy, so what car do we want? And we looked at his early days int he sport. When he started out he started with this dirt track car with the 34 on the side. He always wrote on the car, “Mechanic: Me.” He was really a guy who put up with a lot but he loved the sport and loved what he did. He would just not take no for an answer.
Ray: This is a guy without a pit crew. Wendell Scott would come down Pit Row, get out of his own car, jack it up, change his own tires, put his own gas in, get back in and then drive.
Jay: And then still win the race!
Unreal! Let’s take a moment to watch three bloggers go around a race track this day at Sonoma Racetrack.
and the video!
Jay: Let’s just quickly go through the eras leading to the modern day. 60s and 70s.
Ray: Cars got big with motors in them. The cars were getting bigger and faster. NASCAR started restricitng the engine size.
Jay: Cars are getting faster. They’re not going to run on the beach at Daytona anymore. So these guys run? The tracks started changing too.
Ray: The more banking they add, the less they had to let off the gas. They could run wide open all the way around.
Jay: They also started showing races on TV and bringing them home. That’s how things are changing.
Ray: Mario Andretti was a wild kid out of Pennsylvania that was sliding his car around causing the other guys, some craziness. They say he wouldn’t make it. But he did. Not only did he become world champion, but he was one of 2 men in the history of motor sports to win the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500.
Jay: Mario Andretti was the voice in the first Cars movie. Then we start moving into the 70s.
Ray: As NASCAR started restricting the motors, racers also found out that we could make the cars go faster by manipulating the air. These cars, super birds, found out the pointed nose would cut through the air and the wing would push the back of the car down. These cars were so fast they were only allowed to run for two years and then they basically legislated them out of racing. These cars ran over 200 mph back in the 1970s.
Jay: Why did we choose such weird looking cars (in Cars 3)?
Ray: These cars didn’t have as much personality. There were a lot of new rules about safety. A lot of these guys in the design studio were still focused on build.
Jay: Now we move into the Days of Thunder. The Mullet Era if you will.
Ray: All of a sudden corporate sponsorships. More TV. Lots more ego. Guys really starting to become superstars and making movies, getting product deals.
Jay: This era of cars, kind of brash in-your-face era was sort of an inspiration for Chick Hicks (from the first Cars). See how large his grill is? It’s like a moustache.
Ray: In the 1990s, you couldn’t win unless you had a mustache.
Jay: The other thing those guys liked besides a big mustache was a black car.
Ray: Back in that time, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnheardt, they all had black cars.
Jay: The cars are getting more like jelly beans in this era. The cars are not too distinct. This is when we started on the first Cars, these were the cars on the circuit. The cars are starting to all look the same.
Ray: That was the COT car. Lot of safety but the fans didn’t like it. No personality.
Jay: So what would you do with a car that has no personality. That would make a great background car. So again in cars 1 we have really distinct cars like The King with the big wing. Chick Hicks with the green and all the stickers. And the background cars are like jelly beans. They look like everybody else.
Jay: Let’s fast forward to now. 2006 was our first Cars film. It’s nearly 11 years later and we thought what’s going on in the sport now. We looked at how the cars have changed. The drivers are way different than they were in that era.
Ray: Well similar to the way we build cars now with computers and simulators, we actually don’t even take the cars to the racetrack. Everything’s tested in the facility on wind tunnels and whatnot. The same thing with drivers. Five years ago the average age for the NASCAR was probably close to 40. That age is coming down rapidly because of simulation. The video game world, these guys grew up on video games, they’re now on simulators. You’ve got guys that are 19 or 20 years old that are coming out of the simulator in the race track and running the same speeds as our top drivers.
Ray: Not just drivers, we have a lot of ladies that are engineers and designers.
Jay: Julie Landowner. She’s from Manhattan. She started out at the dirt track level and is working her way up. That inspired Cruise Ramierez. What if she just showed up at the track one day and just felt she didn’t belong and headed out and gave up on her dream. I think what’s exciting is that although the sport has changed and a lot of the ways these guys train has changed, somethings remain the same.
Ray: The tools have changed, but the spirit of the sport remains the same. Going all the way back to the legends. The racetrack is still the battle field, but the races aren’t always won by the strongest. Sometimes they’re won by the competitor that’s smartest and uses his or her tools the best. The key to winning is not about strength anymore, its’ about thinking and technology and preparation.
Jay: That’s something else we lead into with Jackson Storm. Imagine if you had all this experience working alone by yourself. You may not have the social skills or the appreciation of these legends. So he’s brash and he’s stuck up. It’s always just been him. He’s a champion in his own world.
What are you most proud of with these movies?
Ray: I’m really proud of the way that Pixar chose to be so respectful of our legacy and really tell those stories accurately. I’ll tell you in working with them they’re very respectful of where our heroes came from.
Ray was a fabulous teacher and paired with Jay I learned so much. I hope you enjoyed learning about the history of racing as much as I did. Now check out Cars 3.
Directed by Brian Fee (storyboard artist “Cars,” “Cars 2”) and Produced by Kevin Reher (“A Bug’s Life,” “La Luna” short), CARS 3 cruises into theaters on June 16th!
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CARS 3 opens in theatres everywhere on June 16th! Are you taking your kids to see Cars 3?