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Road trip! Or "How I got to experience the world premiere of 'Cars' "

Road trip! Or "How I got to experience the world premiere of 'Cars' "

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It all started with an email. Being the crazed Pixar/animation fanatic that I am, I sent JHM's editor a note earlier last week, asking if I might do a review of Michael Wallis' new book, "The Art of Cars."

Mr. Hill quickly got back to me, explaining that Roger Colton had already called dibs on Pixar's latest art-of book. But Jim did have another "Cars" related assignment, if I was interested. And that was to cover the world premiere of Pixar's newest animated feature at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

Photo by Marie Yuen

Being as big an animation fan as I am, this was a dream assignment. The only problem was that Mr. Hill literally dropped this story in my lap Wednesday morning. Which meant that -- if I was going to make it to Charlotte in time for Friday's premiere -- I really had to get my act in gear.

The first question was: How to get there? At this late date, flying into North Carolina was going to be expensive. And traveling by train and/or bus over the busy Memorial Day weekend wasn't going to be a treat either.

So my only option was (Appropriately enough, given that I was going to be attending the world premiere of "Cars") was a road trip. A 13-15 hour trip from Chicago, IL (which is where the legendary Route 66 begins!), to Charlotte, NC.

Luckily, JHM had been awarded two press credentials for the event at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. So I was able to persuade my friend, Marie Yuen, to come along and serve as photographer on this assignment.

Marie & I hit the road Thursday night. And we were soon off on a cross-country trip through the southeast. Winding through Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North & South Carolina.

All in all, the trip down to the premiere went smoothly. What I hadn't counted on was the huge influx of travelers in Charlotte. I had no idea that Speed Week was taking place in that city. Thanks goodness that JHM had already set up a hotel room for us in Charlotte. For -- what with all those race fans in town -- I don't think we would have been able to find a place to stay otherwise.

Later that afternoon, Marie & I made our way over to the Ballantyne Resort & Spa (I.E. The North Carolina resort that was serving at the headquarters for the "Cars" junket). Where we picked up our press credentials and then boarded the bus with the rest of the press who would be covering the red carpet.

As we motored over to Lowe's Motor Speedway, everything seemed to be going great. The sun was out and ...

Please note that I used the word "was" in my last sentence. For just 10 minutes after we'd gotten on the road to the Speedway, the skies started to darken. And as we turned off the highway, the droplets started to fall. And by the time we entered the race track's parking lot, the rain was pouring down.

Photo by Marie Yuen

So -- obviously -- we stayed on the bus for a while. All around us, people scrambled for cover. Through the rain-streaked window, I noticed several track workers frantically trying to throw tarps over the full-size custom cars of Lighting McQueen, Sally, and Mater.

After an hour, the rain had let up enough that we could continue our trip to the main entrance of the Lowe's Motor Speedway. As Marie & I exited the bus, I noticed that the supports & the metal railings at the Speedway were festooned with gigantic "Cars" banners. The enormous red carpet for the premiere (over 500 feet in length) had been quickly covered up just prior to the downpour. And along the red carpet were several NASCAR vehicles. One was sponsored by Valvoline, while the other had been sponsored by DLP (I.E. The firm that were responsible for the digital projectors that would be used at this event).

Once we got into position along the red carpet, a deep roar emitted came from the carpet's entrance area. I turned and saw the Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Doc Hudson himself was moving up the red carpet! Nearby, the full-size replicas of Mater, Lightning McQueen and Sally had been moved into position. Now free of their tarps, these "Cars" stars were finally ready for their time in the spotlight.

Photo by Marie Yuen

Mind you, it would have been nice to say that -- after that late afternoon downpour -- that the weather at the Lowe's Motor Speedway had improved. But -- truth be told -- it rained on and off for the next few hours. Which made for a somewhat soggy experience. But still, the folks running the "Cars" event were pros. They quickly distributed ponchos to the press. So that no one then had to abandon their spot along the red carpet.

Once the clouds over the Speedway had lightened up a bit, that's when the parade of celebrities began. Cries of 'Git-R-Done!' filled the air as Larry the Cable Guy strode on down the carpet, greeting the press as well as waving to his fans. Paul Dooley (who voices the character of Sarge in "Cars") was accompanied by his lovely wife, Winnie Holzman.

There were plenty of familiar faces from Pixar's previous films on hand. From John Ratzenberger (Pixar's good-luck charm), to Dave Foley (Who makes a cameo appearance in "Cars" 's credit sequence), and even the lovely Bonnie Hunt (The voice of Rosie in "A Bug's Life" as well as Flint from "Monsters, Inc.").

Photo by Marie Yuen

New inductees into the world of Pixar were Owen Wilson (Clad in a casual ballcap and light shirt), racing legend Richard Petty (AKA "The King), and Mike Wallis (I.E. The Route 66 expert who served as Pixar's consultant on "Cars").

Various bigwigs also attended this past Friday's premiere. These included Disney CEO Bob Iger, Studio chairman Dick Cook as well as Norm Mineta, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Photo by Marie Yuen

Once the parade of celebrities was over, Marie and I joined the throng that was filing into the stadium. And even though the crowd was only taking up about a quarter of the stands, it was still pretty impressive to see. 30,000 animation fans huddled together at Turn 2, eager to get their first glimpse of "Cars."

Mind you, as we were taking our seats, last-minute preparations for that night's event were still underway. Down in the middle of the track, 4 giant screens were being prepped for the "Cars" premiere. With dimensions measuring 130' x 75,' the material from all four of these giant screens could have easily made 38 standard-size movie screens. Between the giant movie screens were several smaller digital screens which would periodically show video content.

Photo by Marie Yuen

At the very center of the field, a stage had been set up. Which would figure heavily into last Friday night's festivities. First up, there was a special precision military drill that went off wonderfully. Then it was time for the "Cars World Premiere Shootout," a 15-lap race around the track. Which gave those who didn't know all that much about NASCAR (myself included) a feeling of what a real race must be like.

After that, Larry the Cable Guy -- our M.C. for the evening -- bounded on stage to great applause. Larry then stated that the "Cars" premiere had helped to raise over $1,000,000 for Speedway Children's Charities as well as the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps (Which was founded back in the late 1980s by Paul Newman).

Paul Newman, John Lasseter, Bob Iger and Dick Cook were on hand for the presentation of the over-sized checks to both of these children's charities.

Photo by Marie Yuen

Leading up into the "Home stretch," Larry then introduced the various celebrities that were seated in the bleachers among the spectators. After that, the audience was treated to performances by country superstar Brad Paisley & rock-and-roll legend Chuck Berry.

Then it was finally time to see "Cars." Though a few minor technical problems marred this Pixar picture's premiere, over all this John Lasseter film held together. I'll be doing a full-blown review of this movie for JHM later this week. But -- for now -- I will say that I caught myself laughing out loud at some of the more unexpected moments in this motion picture.

As "Cars" 's end credits began to roll, the grand finale began. Fireworks shot into the cloudy night sky over the Lowe's Motor Speedway. As the pyrotechnics continued, Rascal Flatt's version of "Life is a Highway" (I.E. A track that can be found on the "Cars" soundtrack) came blasting out of the race track's sound system.

Photo by Marie Yuen

Once the last firework popped, it was finally time to go. As the crowd filtered out of the stadium, the crew at Lowe's Motor Speedway was already hard at work. Pulling all of those "Cars" banners down as they got the track ready for its next day of racing.

Overall, I'd have to say that Disney did a pretty decent job of keeping this press event on track. Though the weather obviously had a dampening effect on the event and some minor technical problems marred the earlier part of the premiere, all in all I'd say that "Cars" 's world premiere was a success.

I mean, it's not every day that Charlotte, N.C. gets to host a hoity-toity Hollywood premiere. And -- given how well things went -- I think that they should be proud of the role that they played in making "Cars"'s world premiere a success.

Photo by Marie Yuen

EDITOR'S NOTE: What Michael says at the very start of today's story is true. I really did recruit him to cover the "Cars" premiere this past Wednesday. Which is why I will forever be grateful to Mr. Howe for just dropping everything and heading on down to Charlotte to tackle this assignment. So that JHM could then have such spectacular coverage of the premiere of this new Pixar film

Photo by Michael Howe

I also own a debt of gratitude to Marie Yuen, who garciously agreed to accompany Mr. Lowe on this last-minute assignment. It's Marie who actually took all of the great photographs that accompany both of today's "Cars" -related articles.

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