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A grease geek will guide you: `Cars' decoded

Movie | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Auto allusions are part of the ode to the road's fun. Perhaps a glossary can help clear the dust.

June 04, 2006|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

"CARS" is the "Da Vinci Code" for gear heads.

Sure, you can enjoy Pixar's shiny new hotrod of a summer movie without a lot of expert car knowledge. Oh, but it helps. The movie, which lands in theaters Friday, is up to its wiper blades in esoteric racing references, inside jokes, lug nut lore and automotive minutiae, the sort of stuff that will go right over the heads of most people but will make your local ASE-certified mechanic pee his pants.

For instance: The film is set in Radiator Springs, a bypassed little town on Route 66, where our anthropomorphic hero, Lightning McQueen -- unexpectedly sidetracked on his way to the big Piston Cup season finale -- learns a standard-issue Lesson About Life. The local watering hole is Flo's V8 Cafe (a drive-in), the neon lights for which -- get this -- flash in the proper cylinder firing order of an old Ford flathead V8 engine.

Got geek?

"That was all [character manager] Jay Ward," says director John Lasseter. "He is the resident guru for all things automotive." In fact, the "Cars" production team consulted a long list of automotive experts -- designers, racers, transportation historians and engineers -- to bring a level of verisimilitude unusual, one might even argue not absolutely necessary, to a movie about, you know, talking cars.

What follows then is a short list of automotive references in the movie and their explanations, which will help vehicularly disadvantaged \o7cineastes\f7 understand what, exactly, the guys in overalls are cackling about.

Marbles: You know the moviemakers have it bad if they go to the trouble of getting the dirt right. In the race sequences, we see clouds of little black balls being swept along the racetrack. These are "marbles," bits of tire that get shed from race cars and pill together on the outside of the racing line. They are very slippery and cause crashes, giving stock-car racing one of my personal favorite phrases: "Yep, he done got into them marbles." They have marbles in Formula 1 racing too, but they are pronounced "mahh-bels," as in: "Those mahh-bels are a spot of bother, eh wot?"

"The Big One": As the saying goes, wrecks are only funny until somebody gets hurt, and then they are hilarious. Wrecks have a history and connoisseurship all their own. And so, in the opening race sequence, you see a re-creation of a famous wreck, the huge, accordion-style pileup that occurred at Talladega in 2005, a.k.a. "the Big One," which damaged or retired 25 cars. In point of fact, the Big One is a type -- a genre, if you will -- of chain-reaction accident that looms over every superspeedway event.

The reason? Race organizers, in an effort to keep speeds down, on these monster tracks, fit the cars with restrictor plates in their carburetors. The problem with "restrictor-plate racing" is that the cars bunch up as they all reach their top speed together. This sets the stage for the Big One, which can take out dozens of cars, some in the initial incident and others as they drive into the blinding cloud of smoke and crashed cars.

Speaking of wrecks, the walloping end-over-end crash of "the King" at the end of the movie is a virtual frame-by-frame re-creation of Rusty Wallace's famous end-o at Talladega in 1993 when his car flipped 23 times. Remember that? Rusty doesn't.

Piston Cup: This is not so esoteric. The prize that Lightning seeks is a sound-alike for Winston Cup, which for decades was the name of stock-car racing's premier series and championship trophy -- sponsored by a certain brand of cigarette that, as the advertising slogan ran, "Tastes good" like cancer-causing, restaurant-polluting death sticks should. The sponsorship of the cup changed hands three years ago to the intensely yuppified "Nextel Cup."

Lightning: Young children may turn hopefully to their NASCAR dads to ask, "What kind of car is Lightning McQueen?" To which the response might be, "Ummm ... " And so the slow downward spiral of parental respect will begin.

As it turns out, Lightning is no particular kind of car. "Due to aerodynamics, the shape of NASCAR cars is relatively flat," says Lasseter, "and not very interesting." Lasseter and his team designed McQueen as a hybrid between a stock car and a more curvaceous Le Mans endurance racer, says Lasseter, "with some Lola and some [Ford] GT40." Keen observers of the sport will note, however, that McQueen's rear spoiler is in "short-track" configuration -- tall and upright -- even though he's racing on superspeedways. (If you know this, you have pegged the Foxworthy meter: You might be a redneck.)

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