In the beginning…
On Friday, May 26, a film premiere was held for both animation lovers and sports fans. It was the day that Disney/Pixar’s latest computer animated venture, Cars, raced onto the Lowes Motor Speedway at Concord, North Carolina.
And what a day it was.
Months of preparation had taken place – for folks planning to hold the event and people planning to attend it. Last March, speculation spread across the internet that the popular race track would be the arena for the Disney/Pixar spectacle. Then, on March 24, an official announcement was made. At the very reasonable price of $10 apiece, tickets for the Cars premiere came and went faster than a speeding Mustang. SCENE Daily records that the admissions were sold out by May 10. Of course, as The Charlotte Observer notes, through That’s Racin’, a “lucky” number of people were still able to buy tickets from eBay – for as much as $75 a pop.
Meanwhile, Lowe’s Motor Speedway was under the heavy task of setting up everything needed for the Cars premiere. By Thursday, April 13, the event already had a presence at the race track thanks to cardboard standees of Cars characters being displayed, as noted by Roger Colton of Jim Hill Media. However, it was not until the morning of Sunday, May 21, that the majority of the work began for the premiere.
Observed by The Charlotte Observer, construction of the event’s screens began only hours after the Nextel All-Star Challenge had ended, at the speedway’s Turn 2. Throughout Sunday and Monday, the scaffolding holding the screens was added, with the screens being installed by Tuesday. Interestingly, a time-lapse video of the construction may be seen at WCNC.com. Regarding the magnitude of the movie screens, SCENE Daily indicates that each of the four custom-built screens stood 130 feet wide and 75 feet tall – or five stories high and 15 stories wide, as discerned by the Associated Press. For comparison, Ultimate Disney adds that the screens’ height was “almost as tall as Splash Mountain,” while Michael Howe of Jim Hill Media explains that the screens “could have easily made 38 standard-size movie screens.”
Projecting the film onto the screens would be 12 DLP Cinema projectors, making their first attempt at a synchronized multi-screen outdoor digital projection. For each of the four screens, one projector would serve main duties, while two backups waited in case of an emergency. Nonetheless, all three projectors would remain on during the screening, in order to maximize the picture’s brightness. Described by Nascar.com, the Texas Instruments-produced DLP uses up to 2.2 million tiny mirrors in each chip. Hence, the projectors would be able to generate 35 trillion distinct colors and a combined 240,000 lumens, thus helping to make the Cars screening of the highest quality.
Cars Stars Land In Concord
On Wednesday and Thursday, May 24 – 25, numerous Cars stars met in Concord to answer questions from various media outlets, as covered by The Independent Tribune, WSOCTV.com, and WCNC.com. Actors in attendance were Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, and Larry the Cable Guy. In the meantime, Owen Wilson mostly directed his attention to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Then, the day finally arrived: Friday, May 26. After months of careful planning, one of the largest premieres in film history was set to begin. However, several hours of work was still underway.
Live At The Speedway
With Speed Week taking place, the city was abuzz, crowded with Nascar and Pixar fans in every direction. That morning, the popular talk show Live with Regis and Kelly, distributed by Disney’s Buena Vista Television, broadcast from Lowe’s Motor Speedway, welcoming such guests from Cars as Owen Wilson and Paul Newman. To help promote the film, the series had also recently held the “Red Carpet, Raceway, Getaway” contest, in which five winners won access to both the Cars premiere and the Coca Cola 600.
Around 1 – 2pm, preparation remained in progress, as staff members placed the finishing touches on the stadium’s stage. Concurrently, racing around the speedway was none other than the Hudson Hornet itself. A helpful Disney representative informed that Paul Newman was very likely driving the vehicle at that moment.
During this period, the red carpet, more than 500 feet in length, had yet to be rolled out, although the designated area for it was already marked. Meanwhile, the stands alongside where the celebrities would soon pass were empty. Nonetheless, a few camera crews for major media names, as well as local news programs, were already setting up their equipment.
To the right side of all this, close to the VIP parking section, three Cars-themed race cars were located. It was understood that the middle car had won a particular poll and would therefore be featured in Sunday’s Coca Cola 600. In fact, as the SCENE Daily points out, several cars featured in the Coca Cola 600, including those sponsored by DLP and Valvoline, were decorated with characters from the film. The parking lot directly in front of the main entrance, from which the red carpet could be seen, was empty except for a few vehicles and the Lightning McQueen Mack Truck. Recently, the truck had transported the life-size replica of McQueen throughout the U.S., in the “Cars Road Trip ’06” tour, described by PR Newswire.
Downpour Rains On Plans
The early afternoon hours brought a somewhat calm feeling, as everything looked on course and on schedule for a successful evening. Around 4 – 5pm, the scene began to change rapidly, though, as crowds emerged left and right. In every direction, the number of people was quickly rising. However, the multitude of people was not the only thing to appear. The skies grew darker, until suddenly, the first drop of rain was felt. Some folks had lined up near the red carpet, while others stood outside the stadium. Nonetheless, no matter where one was, chances were strong that he or she became drenched.
The rain pounded and the wind buffeted as people everywhere scurried to their vehicles. Close to the red carpet, track workers raced – no pun intended – to cover the full-size custom cars of Lightning McQueen, Sally, and Mater with tarps. Ponchos were hastily given to the press, as well as to members of the general public who requested such. Detached by the wind, clusters of red, white, blue and yellow decorational balloons floated around the area. Meanwhile, the red carpet itself was covered with canvas, although Mother Nature still made an impact with her watery walk along it.
According to the National Weather Service, via The Independent Tribune, “about an inch” of rain fell over the course of more than an hour. With the storm having calmed down, mild darkness in the sky and dampness in the air still warned of more rain to come. Indeed, throughout the evening, a light drizzle would occur sporadically.
Whereas the Cars stars were scheduled to make their way to the red carpet around 6pm, a delay caused otherwise to occur. Likewise, a planned helicopter entrance had to be aborted, reports Sci Fi Wire. Soaked to the bone and shivering from the cold, scores of reporters stood huddled together along the red carpet. The Independent Tribune writes that the carpet was so saturated, one man tried to mop up part of the mess with what appeared to be a giant squeegee. In the meantime, the ponchos that the press had been given to keep somewhat dry were waded up in numerous reporters’ hands, as they tried to protect their cameras and audio equipment from water damage. But the exhaustion from over an hour of standing was countered by the excitement of things to come. Animated News & Views guest contributor Brandon Neeld was among those reporters.
Concurrently, a plethora of people, including Animated News & Views’ Josh Armstrong, gathered at the red carpet entrance, where the cast would soon arrive. A lengthy span of time passed, as that particular crowd thinned out. However, near 7pm, a parade of limousines signaled what many fans had been longing to see. Each separated by several minutes, the eloquent vehicles pulled up to the entrance.
Red Carpet Coverage
First to enter the red carpet was Pixar’s staple man, John Ratzenberger (voice of Mack), heard in every feature film released by the studio to date. Finely dressed, he huddled under a red umbrella, as a light drizzle continued to move. Close behind, Katherine Helmond (voice of Lizzie) walked through the entrance, meeting a few mistaken cheers of “Golden Girls!” – a show she never appeared in. Nonetheless, Helmond was a picture of loveliness as she wielded her umbrella with a class that was common for movie stars of the silver screen’s golden era.
The rain finally came to a complete stop as Michael Wallis (voice of Sheriff) took to the carpet. Dressed simply for the rainy weather, he jokingly shifted from place to place, as cameras tried to keep up. After Wallis, Paul Dooley (voice of Sarge) strolled more casually, speaking with guests. He opted to remain more natural for photographers, pointing out various signs on the red carpet to his companions.
The arrival of Tony Shalhoub (voice of Luigi) was met with pleasing shouts of “Monk!” The actor leisurly walked along the crimson row with his guest, smiling generously for pictures. Of course, laughter and cries of “Git-R-Done!” from people could only mean one thing: Larry the Cable Guy (voice of Mater) had entered the scene. Suited in his trademark flannel shirt and a camouflage hat with the Cars logo, he shared a laugh with reporters, goofing off for the cameras. The Cable Guy became especially animated with fans at the other end of the carpet. Darting from one side to the other, he slapped as many high-fives as he could while cheering for the screaming fans. Likewise, Larry quipped his trademark line “Git-R-Done!,” waving his hat high in the air. At one point, he abruptly ran from one side of the carpet to the other, almost accidentally mowing down a host of carpet walkers, including Animated News’ Neeld, in the process. Concurrently, Richard Petty (voice of The King) strolled onto the carpet arrayed with his trademark hat and buckle, as well as a snazzy sport coat and jeans.
Arguably, the warmest reception was given to Paul Newman (voice of Doc Hudson). Before his arrival, one particular woman at the carpet’s entrance shouted desperate pleas to nearby Disney staff members, begging to have her picture taken with the actor. Not knowing how to respond, one worker simply shook his head no, before turning in another direction. Entering the carpet, Newman was surrounded by numerous escorts. Initially, Newman did not pause for photographs. He did, however, take time to stop for fans and reporters close to the carpet’s end. Rumor has it via Ultimate Disney that the 81-year-old screen legend was unable to stay long on the soaked carpet, due to it being too slippery.
John Lasseter (Cars director and Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation) made his appearance in a cars-themed Hawaiian shirt and black sport coat. Unfortunately, not many people at the carpet’s entrance seemed to recognize him. Nevertheless, excited about the event, Lasseter spent most of the time pointing out details to his guests and thanking people involved with the film for coming to support it. Robert Iger (CEO of The Walt Disney Co.) was also spotted near the foot of the carpet.
Bonnie Hunt (voice of Sally), who has become a common name in Pixar films, then strutted her stuff for the cameras. All decked out for a trip down Route 66, she interacted with fans, taking photos with them.
Dr. Ed Catmull (President of Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation) sneaked onto the back side of the carpet, as the stars continued down the line. Although he had apparently been caught in the weather, his spirits were not dampened. When asked about his new role at Disney, Catmull answered, “We’re looking forward to it,” while giving an enthusiastic smile. He stopped to greet and exchange words with Edie McClurg (voice of Minnie). Turning to photographers, McClurg had some fun of her own, snapping pictures of them as well. The photographers laughed along with McClurg, as she tried her best to take a picture of them for every one they took of her.
Further applause met Cheech Marin (voice of Ramone), accompanied by his family. A broad smile indicated his excitement as he greeted fans and waved to the crowd. Next, cheers roared for Brad Paisley (featured on the Cars soundtrack), who appeared very eager to sign autographs. Players from the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, and Carolina Hurricanes were also present.
At one point, people at the red carpet entrance assumed all of the main stars of Cars had arrived. Suddenly, whispers could be heard throughout the crowd, heralding the appearance of Owen Wilson (voice of Lightning McQueen). People looked left and right, trying to spot the actor, until he was seen – in the distance, casually talking with a couple of folks in the parking lot. As it turned out, the actor had decided to enter the scene by walking to the entrance, rather than riding a limousine directly in front of it. Wild screams and loud whistles marked the arrival of Wilson. Shuffling along the carpet, he stopped in-between photographs to sign everything from baseball hats to Lightning McQueen “plushies.”
Everyone was quickly reminded that the event was being held at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway when the next figure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (voice of Junior), was welcomed almost as loudly as Cars‘ main star. To the glee of fans, he made his way down the red carpet, waving to the crowd and posing for cameras. Earnhardt made a point of shaking hands with the mostly-local press pool, containing several members whom he knew from his many races at the speedway.
Finishing the field of Cars voice talent, Jenifer Lewis (voice of Flo) showed up, sporting a Monarck’s baseball jersey. Her burgeoning personality played for cameramen and general onlookers alike. Laughing with the press and other people in the vicinity, she humorously cavorted with her guests.
To recap, the celebrities appeared in the following order: John Ratzenberger, Katherine Helmond, Michael Wallis, Dave Foley, Paul Dooley, Tony Shalhoub, Larry the Cable Guy, Richard Petty, John Lasseter, Bonnie Hunt, Dr. Ed Catmull, Edie McClurg, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Cheech Marin, Darell Waltrip, Brad Paisley, Owen Wilson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jenifer Lewis. Paul Newman is believed to have arrived between Petty and Lasseter. Other famous names to walk the red carpet were NASCAR personalities such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kurt Busch.
Inside the stadium, the stars could be seen walking the red carpet, thanks to four large digital screens residing next to the larger movie screens. Reminiscent of real-time carpet coverage the E! network provides for award shows, the video display was rumored to be co-narrated by Jeff Foxworthy. Later, those smaller screens would also magnify the happenings of the premiere’s pre-show.
With the walk of stars coming to an end and the show inside getting ready to start, a series of happenstances led to reporter Neeld actually getting to walk the red carpet. Perhaps it was the unique combination of the premiere being held in Concord, NC – more than 3,000 miles from Hollywood – and the movie’s theme of cars that resulted in a majority of the press being from racing and local news outlets and, thus, uninterested in the movie itself. Whatever the reason might have been, Neeld was the only one in his section of the press pool to have a ticket for the movie’s screening that night. Meanwhile, Animated News & Views’ Armstrong, with a ticket as well, witnessed the event from another area inside the stadium.
To say that Turn 2 of the speedway was crowded would be an understatement, considering the 30,000 – 35,000 people gathered for the event. Nonetheless, given the gigantic screens and pulse-pounding sound, every seat in the house was a good one. Furthermore, sitting high in the outside atmosphere, many folks could see roads and buildings far beyond the stadium. A few raindrops fell sporadically, suggesting a heavier rain that would never come. While the crowd was pumped with excitement, the speedway’s infield between Turns 1 and 2 remained void of the usual race fans occupying the space. Instead, those fans were invited to the Cars screening. Also keeping the peace was the fact that Morehead Road, located behind the track, was closed from 8pm until the end of the premiere.
Finally, after much anticipation, the pre-show began. The masses stood when Diamond Rio performed the National Anthem, as an honor guard from the 82nd Airborne presented the colors. At the song’s lyrics of “…the rockets’ red glare…,” fireworks shot up in an awesome display. Other patriotic festivities included a band performance of “God Bless America” and a precision drill, both courtesy of the U.S. military. Afterward, four F-16s flew over the stadium, much to the delight of the audience.
Following that presentation was a set of pop standards from Party on the Moon, best known for performing at festive events of various sizes. They were unfamiliar to many members of the audience, but when the group began covering Beyoncé Knowles and Jay-Z’s hit song “Crazy in Love,” the crowd quickly warmed up to the act. As the song progressed, more and more folks jumped to their feet and reenacted dance moves made famous by Knowles.
The smaller display screens periodically showed different areas of the stadium, such as performers on stage, celebrities in the audience, or particular audience members who were doing something interesting. One example of the latter occurred when the screens displayed a woman dancing wildly to the “Crazy” Moon tune. That woman happened to be sitting in front of Animated News & Views’ Armstrong, one seat to the right.
Next was the much-hyped “Cars World Premiere Shootout,” a 12-lap race around the track. Eight cars were featured in the lineup, with NASCAR’s own Darrell Waltrip driving the Cars car, which sported the movie’s logo on its hood. Disney Studios’ chairman Dick Cook started the race in the pace car. The goal of “Shootout” was to give folks unfamiliar with the rules of NASCAR a taste of what a real race feels like. According to The Charlotte Observer, through That’s Racin’, it featured the track’s driving school cars painted as top Nextel Cup racers. Some people, such as one writer for the blog No Pundit, speculated that the race had a “pre-planned outcome.” Indeed, certain sections of the race mimicked plot points in Cars, although noting those particular parts would mean spoiling the film. Later in the evening, Larry the Cable Guy joked about being shocked that the Cars car won. Nonetheless, the “Cars World Premiere Shootout” offered great fun to the occasion.
Providing comic relief for the evening was the premiere’s emcee, Larry the Cable Guy. His stage entrance was met with much applause. Keeping his material suited for family audiences, Larry joked about rising gas prices. The comedian noted that when he first started working, it was for gas money. He then added that now he is a movie star – and still just working for gas money. As a follow-up, Larry quipped that Cars was originally going to be made as a live-action film – but Disney couldn’t afford the gas for such. One of the biggest laughs occurred when the Cable Guy commented that all of the cars in Cars drive themselves – which is why two of them were sent to the Kennedy family.
In addition to doing stand-up, Larry also spoke of the charities helped by the premiere: Speedway Children’s Charities and the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, the latter of which being co-founded by Paul Newman in 1986. Over $1,000,000 had been raised for the causes, with $500,000 going to each charity. A special video segment, which involved Cars talent visiting some of the children benefited by the funds, was shown. Afterward, Paul Newman, John Lasseter, Robert Iger, Dick Cook, and Lowe’s Motor Speedway chairman Burton Smith walked onto the stage, for the presentation of the oversized checks to the two charities.
The subsequent section of the pre-show consisted of Larry introducing the various Cars celebrities seated in the bleachers, in addition to recognizing himself. Likewise noticed were the seating areas for charity attendees and the families of soldiers serving overseas. Furthermore, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, was on hand, with Larry remarking that he had some tickets he wanted to speak with Mineta about after the premiere.
Brad Paisley then took to the stage. Exciting the crowd, the country superstar performed such hits as “Mud on the Tires” and his current chart-topper “The World.” Paisley also performed what Larry referred to as his favorite song, “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” in which a man chooses fishing over his wife.
The final musical performances of the evening came from rock-and-roll legend Chuck Berry, who entertained with “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Route 66,” as the latter song is prominently featured in Cars. Throughout the night, technical problems with the sound had been interrupting numerous acts. For instance, the microphone turned off on the lead singer for Party on the Moon. Unfortunately, Berry appeared to receive the worst end of the glitches, though. First, the singer himself was barely audible, before his guitar suffered the same fate. Berry then turned the attention over to his piano player – who could barely be heard as well. Nonetheless, Berry handled the technical difficulties like a pro, impressing the audience by strumming a quick tune on his guitar as it sat upside-down on his shoulder.
Finally, somewhere between 10 – 10:30pm, the main event of the evening arrived. The crowd of thousands suddenly quieted down, as the massive movie screens turned black.
Thus, Disney/Pixar’s Cars began.
One would very easily guess that, overall, the crowd loved the movie. People laughed along with the hilarious antics of Mater and were wowed by the spectacular panoramas and fluid scenes of fast animation for which Pixar is famous. A few spots in the film, including the particularly heart-tugging scene with James Taylor’s “Our Town,” even drew sounds of sadness from the audience. Meanwhile, the final race in Cars appeared to evoke a number of emotions, in a good way.
Keeping the masses entertained during the credits was a unique bit poking fun at a certain ingredient included in every Pixar movie. Also found among the credits was a special tribute, for the animation fans present: In a touching memorial, the late Joe Ranft was credited as the co-director of Cars for his extensive work on the movie, from its pre-production stages to his ironic and tragic death in an automobile accident last year.
Once the credits had ended, a dazzling spectacle of fireworks soared into the sky. Beautifully, they lit up the arena. Of numerous shapes and sizes, the fireworks even contained one blast purposely in the shape of a smiley face. Serenading the marvel was Rascal Flatts’ version of “Life Is a Highway,” also featured on the Cars soundtrack.
Near midnight, as the stadium’s lights reappeared, the chatter was of a pleased atmosphere. Some children could even be heard enthusiastically repeating Lightning McQueen’s catchphrase, “Kachow!” Despite the sporadic drizzle during the premiere, most audience members contended that the event had been a worthwhile experience. Making their way to the parking lot, people stopped to have their pictures taken on the red carpet with life-sized replicas of the characters Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Sally.
At the same time, workers of Lowe’s Motor Speedway were already hard at work, preparing the track for the next race. Interestingly, they had only 11 hours to remove the screens, scaffolding, and equipment. The haste was made in order for NASCAR fans to re-enter the infield and the next day’s race practice to begin.
In conclusion, the Cars premiere at Lowe’s Motor Speedway could certainly be counted as successful, especially considering the speedway – and state – had never hosted such an event before. Some people may question the debut of such a large film in an area unacquainted with the usual sights and sounds of Hollywood. However, perhaps Disney CEO Robert Iger addressed that concern best about the car-themed picture, with the following analysis: “Disney knows how to do it, and this is a fitting way to open a movie like this. We’re at a speedway, first of all, and it’s just grand form. Grand form.” Meanwhile, children and adults present at the premiere generally agreed that Cars is a fine addition to the Disney/Pixar legacy, living up to the standards that have continuously put Pixar at the top of its game. With that said, it is reasonable to expect that the population of Concord has already begun wishing for Cars Ride Again – for more reason than one.
Special thanks to Mr. Troy Knutson, Manager of Field Marketing for Buena Vista Pictures Marketing, for kindly providing information about the event.
The Animated News & Views staff is also grateful toward “PixarVixen,” who was likewise at the Cars premiere and posted excellent images from her experience at the Animated News & Views Forum.
Those photos and more pictures of the event are also hosted at Webshots. The images cover early afternoon through late night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, capturing some behind-the-scenes action of the premiere.
• Getty Images