Hollywood treatment for NASCAR’s young stars in ‘Cars 3’

SHOP: ‘Cars 3’ NASCAR-related merchandise

Even though Daniel Suarez enjoys a degree of celebrity status as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he couldn’t help but be a little starstruck at the prospect of his silver-screen debut.

“You guys have no idea how happy I am to be side-by-side with this car right now,” Suarez said earlier this year, standing alongside a life-sized model of Lightning McQueen, the animated star of Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” franchise.

Suarez is one of a dozen figures in NASCAR getting the Hollywood treatment in the third installment of the automotive feature film franchise. The movie opens June 16 in theaters everywhere. It debuted May 23 in a special sneak preview for the NASCAR industry, with several drivers in attendance at the Gem Theater in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

While several familiar voices — including those of stock-car legends Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty — will return to the big screen for “Cars 3,” the film’s story line will feature a new crop of drivers vying for the fictional Piston Cup.

That’s where Suarez, along with Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Chase Elliott enter stage left. The four young drivers will get their own animated roles, transforming into Danny Swervez, Ryan “Inside” Laney, Bubba Wheelhouse and Chase Racelott.

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“It’s amazing. I’m a huge fan of ‘Cars’ movies in general,” Suarez said. “When I was living in Mexico with my parents, it was natural to watch those movies and have all different kind of little cars, pillows, remote controls — I’m a big fan of it, and now to be a part of it, it’s a big deal for me.”

Trailers for the movie have been out for months, but a preseason announcement officially launched a collaboration between the Disney-Pixar team and the NASCAR industry. Actor Owen Wilson, who is the starring voice of McQueen in all three Cars movies, helped kick off the tie-in as the grand marshal of the season-opening Daytona 500.

MORE: NASCAR, Disney-Pixar promote a season-long ride

The initiative goes beyond merely lending voices to the sequel, but stretches to at-track appearances, merchandise and co-branded learning materials for elementary school students through the NASCAR Acceleration Nation youth program. But the movie’s story arc also draws parallels from NASCAR’s current trend, of a growing youth movement that’s making its mark in its regional and national series.

“It’s kind of just replicating what’s happening out on the track in real life,” said Wallace, who has had the movie’s logo as a sponsor for his NASCAR XFINITY Series rides the last two weeks. “It’s just really cool to be a part of ‘Cars 3.’ What’s special is I have my little nephew who’s 3. He’s still understanding everything, but I think right around the corner he’s going to be ready to watch ‘Cars.’ So I’ve got to sit him down and watch ‘Cars’ 1 and ‘Cars 2’ with him to get him hooked on it, and then bring him to the race track so he can start representing some Bubba Wheelhouse merchandise.

“But it’s really cool to be a part of this younger generation coming up in the movie, just like in real time.”

Note: An earlier version of this article was published Feb. 23.