You might be a redneck if you go see the new NASCAR meets Disney/Pixar movie "Cars."
But you don't have to be.
My first exposure to NASCAR came only a few weeks ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte for the "Cars" world premiere. Before this, I had never been to a race track -- in fact I had never even watched a race on TV or wondered what Dale Earnhardt Jr. would do, or bothered to find out what a restrictor plate is.
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But that's just me. I can't stand NASCAR and have preconceived notions about people who can, but even with all my unleaded animosity I was still pretty excited about the left-turn-only hick flick and the stars of "Cars." As usual, Disney didn't skimp on the voice talent, landing a bunch of big names, one of which is bound to appeal to everybody, no matter what age or color your neck. The press junket was held in a skybox at the racetrack and each reporter seemed to have her or his prime target -- ladies were glossing their lips for Owen Wilson, 30-somethings readied their camera phones for a pic with Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), the speedheads reverently introduced themselves to seven-time Nextel Cup champ Richard Petty, and even crusty old newsies were furtively thrilled at the chance to shake the cool hand of Paul Newman.
For me, the draw was Cheech Marin.
There he was: the guy who hung out with my buddies in tapestried basements and backseats of our parents' minivans through some of life's most amusing uhhh moments, man.
Surprisingly, Cheech doesn't play the role of Fillmore -- the 1960s relic VW van who jams to Hendrix and makes organic gasoline; that role went to George Carlin. Cheech plays Ramone, a 1959 Chevy Impala low-rider complete with fins, hydraulics, headers and gold-plated wire wheels. Hippie van or not, Cheech still was swarmed by several of us crunchies-gone-corporate. I chuckled as a guy from an online music mag recounted his after-school ritual of rolling joints on the 45 vinyl of "Greatest Hit." Cheech just nodded gratefully with a smirk that seemed to imply he could be rich had he a nickel every time he heard that from a guy in a suit.
For a moment, I thought it ironic that this was the topic of conversation at a G-rated car-toon flick promotion, but it occurred to me that those of us huddled around Cheech Marin were only seeking familiar ground. Without Cheech, we were fish out of water, flapping around on hot oval asphalt. We flocked to Cheech because he looked at auto racing like we did. When asked what he knew about NASCAR, he just shrugged and said, "I don't know," then with the twirl of a finger in the air, "What's it take to go around and around?"
And, he was honest in his strange attraction to the sport, saying simply, "I don't want them to get hurt, but I like it when they crash." Honestly, aren't we all a little guilty of rubbernecking at racing wreckage? So really, no matter what side of the stick shift you sit on, the idea behind "Cars" is easy to embrace. And so is the story -- especially if you liked Michael J. Fox circa 1991, since the tale of a hot-shot racer who accidentally lands in an old-fashioned Route 66 town feels like an animated version of "Doc Hollywood" with a southern drawl.
And speaking of drawls, if I might pigeonhole you real race fans for a minute, you'll probably be excited to hear Blue Collar Tour comedian Dan Whitney's y'allbonics behind the voice of Mater the Tow Truck.
Evidently, Dan goes by "Larry The Cable Guy" even though he's a wealthy actor/stand-up comic. In the movie, he's Mater -- first name Tow -- the manager of the town's impound lot who prides himself on driving backwards. That sounds about right for the guy Rolling Stone magazine described as "slightly dim, often racist, completely redneck, 100 percent Republican."
At the press premiere, Larry The Cable Guy waltzed in sporting his typical trailer-fabulous attire -- a camo John Deer hat (with what appeared to be a fish hook on the visor), a beige Chuck's Harley Davidson t-shirt (sleeves torn off, of course), jeans, old Nike high-tops and a bottle of water. (Easy good ol' boys. Larry hasn't been hit in the Achilles' heel of Hollywood; the bottle of water was emptied out for use as a spitter.) I don't care who you are, that's not funny. But hey, at least Disney/Pixar knows their audience. I might not think your spitter, farmer tan or tractor is sexy, but certainly a lot of people think NASCAR is. It's second only to the mighty NFL in sports viewership -- I can't argue with that. And the millions of Cable Guy/NASCAR fans surely will sink their dipsticks into this one, especially with voice cameos from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti, and parodies like Darrell Waltrip as the retired racer turned announcer "Darrell Cartrip."
Truth be told, despite the all-cloth buffing of NASCAR fan bumpers, "Cars" still manages to appeal to a broader audience. For one thing, the graphics we've come to expect from the makers of "The Incredibles" and "Toy Story" dazzle us again with vivid imagery. This time, instead of monsters, bugs or fish, they've managed to anthropomorphically capture metallic, reflective surfaces that seem startlingly realistic, especially in the high-octane racetrack scenes with sweeping camera angles and speed-blurred drivebys. And if pole positioning doesn't rev your engine, take in the animators' astonishing ability to bring the desert vistas of the Southwest to life through several Sunday-drive-type scenes of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt).
While I'm certain I didn't catch all (OK, any) of the race puns or dig the twangy-pop soundtrack, there was still plenty to fill up on at the animation station of "Cars." Maybe it's because I -- we -- live in a car culture. As Petty told me, "Everybody -- whether they know it, or think it, or what -- everybody's got a love affair with cars." So I guess that's the common denominator here. Those of us in Southern California love our cars, as do do folks in Middle America, and New York City and Atlanta. So no matter if it's country, rap or public radio that makes your boot, or Birkenstock, or Gucci shoe tap, a trip to "Cars" makes for a nice drive.
Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.