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Monday, July 31, 2006
Stars, cars and nacho cheese

By Sam Alipour
Special to Page 2

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- It might be an ozone-less scorcher of a July afternoon, but it's business as usual in Tinseltown. By morning, the Hollywood message boards were abuzz with news that (A) a former boy-bander had emerged from his walk-in closet; (B) a young starlet had been hospitalized after an overdose; and (C) historic Grauman's Chinese Theatre would be host to yet another movie premiere.

But as is so often the case in this town, not all things are as they seem. By the afternoon Lance Bass was still gay; said starlet's publicist had released a statement saying Lindsay Lohan was, in fact, admitted to a hospital for dehydration; and tickets to said movie premiere were proving to be unusually hard to come by, as it would not be your typical affair of bling, limos and Hollywood Suits.

More like Marlboro smokes, carbureted engines and denim shorts.

Will Ferrell
Ricky Bobby must be a big Crystal Gayle fan.

Yup, the boys and girls of NASCAR were in town last week. And after the world premiere of "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" on Wednesday, Tinseltown would never be the same. Or would it? Here's the play-by-play.

6:30 pm: MANY LOHANS AND STOCK CARS ON HOLLYWOOD BLVD
Because Los Angeles currently is stricken by something local news outlets call "Heat Epidemic '06" (giving second billing to that friendly tennis match in Lebanon-Israel), the city is now littered with many heat-exhausted people.

And that was before the NASCAR circus infiltrated Hollywood Boulevard, where hundreds of sunstroked fans now frantically flash NASCAR memorabilia and a not-so-young lady in front of the adjacent Hooters flashes her breasts (Twice. I counted.) while ushers in fire suits swirl around us all.

The exhaust pipes aren't helping. The red carpet is actually asphalt-black carpet, with lanes and crash barriers allowing the stars to make grand entrances in actual stock cars modeled after those in the film.

WHY JOHN C. REILLY AND WILL FERRELL MIGHT KILL US ALL
Fans roar with approval at every roar of the engine, even if it's highly probable that John C. Reilly will lose control of his Old Spice-sponsored stock car and grind us all into sand.

"I get car sick pretty easily," warns Reilly, who plays Ricky Bobby's pal, Cal Naughton Jr. "But I also did 'Days of Thunder,' so I have some experience with these cars. And I've got a clean driving record.

"But I'm not going to lie to you," adds the actor, who trained at the Richard Petty Driving Experience with others in the cast. "I'm a Johnny-come-lately. I'm not much of a NASCAR fan."

Because this admission is made by a man with a middle initial (very Hollywood) within earshot of many "Juniors" or "Seniors" (very NASCAR), I'm now watching my back lest I'm sucked into some sort of Southern-Style Beatdown.

Brittany Murphy
Brittany Murphy and Maria Menounos aren't in "Talladega Nights" -- but we'll run their pic anyway.

Nerves are rattled further when another stock car peels to a stop. Ferrell has arrived -- in his own signature wheels, no less. "I'm a hell of driver," assures Ferrell, wearing a vintage Crystal Gayle T. "I know what I'm doing out there on the highway. I know the tricks of the road, like always use the emergency lane if you need to get around someone."

THE DRIVERS: ALL BUSINESS ... FOR NOW
Stock car racing was created by prohibition-skirting moonshiners, so it's safe to assume NASCAR types will be most comforted by the sight of the evening's open bar and least comforted by the sight of the annoying "E!" hostess waving a checkered flag in their faces.

These are gnarly times indeed for good ol' boys such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bill Lester. So how do these real NASCAR drivers cope? By feeding the celebrity-rag parasites bitter spoonfuls of shoptalk.

"I feel like I'm still in The Chase," Junior says to a reporter who clearly couldn't care less. "I'm [ranked] at 11 with six races remaining and only a few points to gain. I'm not worried at all. I can get it done."

Nearby, Lester is explaining the ins and outs of sponsorship to a baffled journo who looks to be a lit wick away from bursting into a ball of flames.

"I'm really looking forward to racing in Nextel Cup full-time next year," says the part-time Craftsman Trucker, looking much more at ease talking to this sports reporter. "I just want to make sure I deliver in Fontana on Labor Day."

That's all good, but Ferrell says he'd rather see Michael Waltrip make some waves. "Waltrip says if he ever wins again, he's paying homage to Ricky Bobby by running around the track in his underwear," Ferrell says. "I'd rather not miss that."

STEVE SANDERS HELPS BRIDGE THE GAP
Nothing can forge a temporary alliance between Armani-clad hipsters and denim-donning Southerners like the soothing presence of a "Beverly Hills, 90210" cast member.

Steve Sanders was all about chicks and cars. The thespian who brought him to life is no different. Ian Ziering is wielding a fine lady on his arm and tales from the previous weekend's MotoGP in Monterey, Calif. "I did some hot laps to improve my skills," says Ziering, the owner of a '60 Corvette with a 383 stroked motor. "Steve existed through me, so if I had any say, hell yeah, he'd be in NASCAR."

If there's a "Talladega, 35161" spin-off, it'd star Frankie Muniz. The artist formerly known as "Malcolm" is fresh off the Formula BMW circuit, where he recently finished 16th in a field of 29.

"I've only been racing for six months, and most of the competition has been at it since they were 6 years old," says Muniz, who'll jump to Champ Car next year. "But I'm improving with every race. That's the most important thing."

Courtney Hansen
Never heard of Courtney Hansen until now? Neither had we.

RULE OF LIFE NO. 4: HOT GIRLS LOVE FAST CARS AND FUNNY GUYS
Brittany Murphy, Amanda Bynes and Courtney Hansen -- three women with no conceivable connection to the film -- are working the carpet. I'm most intrigued by Hansen because she hosts Spike TV's wheels-themed "PowerBlock."

I'm also intrigued because I hear a female reporter from Fuel TV tell Hansen she has a nice [fill in the blank].

"I know, and I'm not even wearing a bra!" Hansen exclaims.

As a rule, I'm a big fan of such talk -- and of any human cited in FHM's "100 Sexiest Women in the World" issue -- so I selflessly join the conversation. Hansen tells me she'll soon host a new reality TV competish, "Racing for a Living: The Search for the Next NASCAR Driver."

"And I just signed Jeff Gordon to co-host it with me," she adds. And this is great news because the four-time Cup champ didn't have enough going for him already.

Hansen then leaves me in favor of "Access Hollywood," with a makeshift set that features barrels of hay. I don't have hay, but I have a ticket to the show. And they don't. On to the movie ...

10 p.m.: THE AFTER-PARTY -- NASCAR'S TIME TO SHINE
After the screening, ushers funnel guests past throngs of autograph seekers toward what was once a parking lot but is now Disneyland on Jack Daniel's. While kids pound the controls of "Daytona USA 2" in one of two arcades, adults watch race footage on four theater-size screens to the eardrum-jangling mix of roaring engines and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Yes, NASCAR Nation is now at home, and these nacho cheese fountains, grilled cheese trays and hot dog booths are decidedly unsafe. "Earlier it was a Hollywood scene, but now it's hard to tell," Dale Jr. says. "I mean, fried chicken and grilled cheese? They definitely got the food right."

Hollywood types tend not to dine on fatty things with gooey textures, but they love their liquor. Unfortunately, the five open bars are dominated by good ol' boys. What are the locals to do? Depends.

Unfortunate B-Listers such as Champ Kind (David Koechner) and Scott Evil (Seth Green) must retreat to the empty bar in the corner.

A-Listers, on the other hand, need not fret. Ferrell's fluffer brings him a steady supply of beer, allowing Frank the Tank to keep pace with Junior, who is throwing back drinks with the authority of Zeus -- and with the aid of a NASCAR-bred liver, no doubt.

(Me? I'm sticking to water -- with just a splash of vodka and Red Bull.)

Not all partygoers have the stamina to hang with NASCAR Nation. Muniz and the Williams sisters fail to qualify, exiting early. But Serena's ex, "Rush Hour" auteur and Hollywood scenester Brett Ratner, is still going strong.

As he starts to tell me about a scene in "Rush Hour III" that he has written specifically for Yao Ming, we're interrupted by a young starlet who urgently needs the dude's digits. After he obliges, she looks to me uncertainly, then excuses herself.

Yes, I've jock-blocked Brett Ratner. And he's no longer talking to me.

EVERYONE'S A (REALLY BAD) CRITIC
Because "Talladega" has not yet been released, I'm barred by the Patriot Act -- and some serious-minded studio suits -- from critiquing the film here. Instead, I give you in-depth reviews by folks who obviously don't do this for a living.

Ricky Bobby
"Talladega Nights" tells the story of Ricky Bobby and his famed Wonder Bread car.

"Very, very funny," says Bruce Willis, before yukking it up with a troika of attractive young women.

"So hilarious," says "Austin Powers" director Jay Roach to the movie's Sacha Baron Cohen. "And you? So hilarious. Really."

"Eh, the racing parts were cool, I guess," Muniz says. "But Will Ferrell was great."

"The first hour was awesome," says Earnhardt, who cameos in the film. "But I was awful."

"Ever notice that Jeff Gordon looks exactly like Speed Racer?" asks Michael Clarke Duncan, completely ignoring my question.

NASCAR CAN ACT -- SORT OF
"Talladega" writer/director Adam McKay says that although most drivers were clamoring for parts, his risqué script left some team owners in neutral. "The owners were kind of freaked out by the script," he says, citing a disagreement within Joe Gibbs Racing. "Tony Stewart was down with it, but Gibbs was like, 'You can use our car, but you can't use Tony.' There was a lot of that."

And of the drivers who made the cut? "Casey Mears was shockingly good," offers McKay. "But I was most impressed with Junior. He had great comedic timing."

"Junior did a hell of a job," Ferrell confirms. "There's already some award-season talk. I know these things."

Junior isn't buying. "There were only a few of us in the film," he says. "It ain't hard when your competition is Jamie McMurray."

"Besides, my line is terrible," he says of his performance as an autograph seeker. "I didn't do a good job at all. I was racing at the time, and they jerked me out of the car, so I didn't have time to prepare."

The most likely to succeed? "Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart would make great actors," Junior says. "They just don't give a damn. That's the right attitude. Tony wouldn't fold under pressure from the director. He'd really go for it."

Sure, if by "it" you mean the director's groin.

ARI GOLD WOOS TIM DUNCAN
Two tables at the center of the party sit empty, save for their "Reserved for NASCAR" placards. Turns out many drivers didn't turn out. Among the no-shows: McMurray, Mears, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Reed Sorenson and retired Rusty Wallace.

"Some guys just aren't into this stuff," Junior explains. "Guys like Kurt Busch and Kyle Petty, they do a good job for their sponsors but they're just not very camera friendly."

Busch and Petty would dig Tim Duncan, who's quietly cavorting with ex-Wake Forest teammate and "First Daughter" star Marc Blucas while shooing away cameras.

But where others see an aloof big man, Ari Gold sees dollar signs. "Ari would kill to represent Tim," says "Entourage" star Jeremy Piven. "He's extremely gifted, but he's insanely disciplined and not prone to erratic behavior. Sure, he's shy, but that means he lays low and he has perspective on the whole situation."

Looks as though there's a whole lot of perspective in NASCAR these days.

A BRIT AND A CANADIAN WALK INTO A NASCAR PARTY ...
No character pokes harder at NASCAR traditionalists than "Da Ali G Show" star Cohen's gay French villain Jean Girard (think Cohen's "Bruno" persona meets Inspector Clouseau meets Stewart -- on a very bad day).

By all accounts, Cohen's performance was comic gold. Not that he's gloating. Or talking. "You know what?" says the notoriously press-shy Brit to one reporter. "I'm feeling a bit ill."

Later, the very un-ill Cohen takes in a beer with another rising comic, Canadian Will Arnett of "Arrested Development." The foreigners are grappling with weighty cultural differences.

Like Arnett's exotic beverage: "Corona," Arnett tells Cohen. "It's a Mexican beer."

And NASCAR: "Sacha's British and I'm Canadian, so the conversation is great," Arnett says. "We're saying stuff like, 'Wow, the cars go suuuper fast!'"

Skating, however, is in Arnett's blood. He's currently shooting "Blades of Glory," starring Ferrell and Jon Heder of "Napoleon Dynamite" as a figure skating duo battling French champs played by Arnett and wife Amy Poehler of "Saturday Night Live." "My wife and I play a brother and sister," Arnett says. "I guess that's kind of weird."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed up at the premiere with his new crew chief, Michael Clarke Duncan.

MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN AS JUNIOR'S WINGMAN?
Filming at actual races gave Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays crew chief Lucius Washington, appreciation for last weekend's Pocono drama. "When I saw my first wreck at Charlotte, and it passed right by us, I was like, 'Wow, this is serious,'" Duncan recalls. "Now I understand why someone would stand in the middle of the track and throw his helmet at a car.

"Of course, I can also see why chicks love them."

Duncan's right. On this evening, Dale Jr. is very busy, as women young, old and ridiculously old crawl up to him, cameras and their own sheepish men in tow.

"Can I take a picture with you for my daughter?" says one silver-haired lady as her man squirms nearby. Junior graciously obliges but would soon regret it. The camera isn't snapping. And 30 seconds later, the gentlemanly driver isn't flinching, even as he poses for an eternity, his face frozen in a smile, with a bevy of impatient beauties circling. At this point, Willis surely would have thrown the camera into the nacho cheese fountain.

"Ma'am," Junior finally says to the lady. "I don't think your camera is working."

Still, Junior is ready to do it all over again. "It's weird," he says. "I've always had a hard time figuring out what my level of fame is. But you come here and you figure out the sport is bigger than you took it for. A movie like this doesn't hurt guys like me, I'll tell you that much."

2 a.m.: THE FINAL LAP
With the music mellowing, the partygoers head for the exits, many with drinks still in hand, some stumbling and Green inexplicably (and literally) skipping.

"The party is officially over," says Reilly, heralding his own exit. Cohen follows, heading to his limo with an escort of two suited guards. Ferrell looks decidedly un-Tank-like with his entourage of four burly goons.

And Dale Jr.? He exits with only his soft-spoken buddy J.R. by his side, stopping to sign autographs for fans.

Yup, North Carolina's own is leaving the Hollywood in Hollywood.

"Actually, we're looking for a club," Junior says. "Do you know a place?"

Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles and writes the Media Blitz column for ESPN The Magazine.