This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s April 10 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
In Disney-Pixar’s “Cars 3,” Lightning McQueen seeks stock car racing’s roots. But why wait for the June 16 debut to meet the rides who put McQueen back on track? Here’s a sneak peek at the new characters — and the racers who inspired them.
INSPIRATION: Wendell Scott
2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame, first (and so far only) African-American to win a Cup Series race
VOICED BY: Isiah Whitlock Jr.
“We did so much research on NASCAR history, and these four jumped out as these incredible stories of inspiration,” director Brian Fee says of the Cars 3 dirt-track quartet. “Lightning is at a place in his life where it’s about overcoming obstacles. No one faced longer odds than Wendell Scott, racing where he did, primarily in the South, during the era when he did it, in the 1960s, and with little money at all. It really is amazing.”
Junior “Midnight” Moon
INSPIRATION: Junior Johnson
2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame and inspiration for the movie “The Last American Hero”
VOICED BY: Junior Johnson
The plan was to have an actor voice this part, then Pixar met the Last American Hero, the only living member of the legends. “They weren’t run off by my accent, I guess,” says the 85-year-old former moonshiner, who now pushes legal corn squeezins, also named Midnight Moon. “They gave me one line to read where my car says he discovered how to use the draft at Daytona. I looked up at the movie folks and said, ‘Yeah, that’s true. I did.'”
INSPIRATION: Smokey Yunick
Legendary mechanic, winning car builder/crew chief of both Daytona 500 and Indy 500
VOICED BY: Chris Cooper
Yunick was known for his hard facial features (see: the design of his animated car), his ability to bend rules and his penchant for cramming multiple curse words into every sentence. Says Johnson: “We were all pretty good at finding gaps in the rules, but Smokey was probably the best.” Adds Fee, laughing: “We all read Smokey’s book [“Best Damn Garage in Town”]. It’s so great. But if we’d written our script exactly as Smokey would’ve said it, we’d be in big trouble.”
Louise “Barnstormer” Nash
INSPIRATION: Louise Smith
“First Lady of Racing,” competed in NASCAR from 1945 to ’56, winning 38 races across four divisions
VOICED BY: Margo Martindale
In 1947, Smith drove down from Greenville, South Carolina, to watch the races on Daytona Beach. But she hated being behind the fence and entered her husband’s new Ford coupe. She wrecked out, hopped a bus home and conjured up a lie to tell Mr. Smith about the missing car, only to find out a photo of his smashed Ford was in the local papers. “We’ve all got great stories,” Johnson says of Smith. “But hers might be the best one of them all.”