A Car Story

Each summer about this time amid the lazy hot days of vacation and slower work weeks, I like to tell a story of my youth. This one is particularly timely as it coincides with Disney’s hit movie Cars 3. If you haven’t seen it, collect a few of your children, grandchildren, or someone else’s children and GO SEE IT. The writers and animators of Disney and Pixar outdo themselves with this one as the film not only continues their extraordinary ability to entertain all ages simultaneously by engaging children’s emotions from laughter to tears, it also encourages retiring boomers to offer their gifts to the next generation.

But beyond these accomplishments, the movie deals with emotions on levels rarely seen in animated films. (PS, I’m pretty sure the ticket folks will admit you even if you are not accompanied by children.)

I grew up beside Doc Hudson and didn’t even know it.

Back in 2006, walking out of the original Cars movie with four generations of Basses at the beach, my dad said, “you know, this story was about Herb Thomas” “Our next door neighbor in Sanford, NC back in the 50’s and 60’s Herb Thomas?” I asked incredulously. “Yes he said, Herb’s record-winning seasons of driving the ‘Fabulous Hudson Hornet’ was the inspiration of Cars as it’s lovably grumpy old-man character of Doc Hudson, voiced by Paul Newman.”

Herb joined NASCAR when it started way back in 1947. Two years later the Grand National (later known as the Winston Cup) was started as Herb was coming into his own. He won his first Grand National in a Plymouth at Martinsville, Virginia in 1950.

The Hudson Car Company was one of the first automobile manufacturers to fully embrace auto racing. When the Hudsons were introduced, they took the circuit by storm with speed, low weight and agility. The car’s six cylinder engines proved faster than the others’ big V-8’s.

Racing the Hudson Hornet, Thomas won the Grand National Championship in 1951 and 1953 and came in second three times (1952,1954, and 1956). He was the first person to win three Southern 500’s (1951, 1954 and 1955). All was going well until Herb was seriously injured in a Shelby, NC race in October 1956, effectively ending his racing career.


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In a poignant moment during the first Cars movie Lightning McQueen discovers Doc Hudson’s three “Piston Cup” trophies tossed among some old racing tires in a corner of his dusty old garage, one of them on a bench holding some old tools. They were dated 51,52, and 53.

Lightning turns to Doc and asks, “How could a car like you quit at the top of your game?”
“You think I quit?” retorted Doc indignantly.


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Lightning gazes toward the old newspaper article framed on the garage wall and responds sympathetically, “Right . . . , your big wreck in 54.”

In lowered voice, Doc answers Lightning’s earlier question – “They quit on me. When I finally got put together I went back expecting a big welcome, you know what they said? You’re history. Moved right onto the next rookie standing in line.”

“There was a lot left in me, I never got a chance to show ’em. I keep that to remind me never to go back.”

In real life, Thomas’ near-death crash at Shelby pushed his then-pregnant wife to issue an ultimatum, “It’s me and your unborn child or it’s racing – you choose.” Herb chose his family.

Herb’s son Joey was my brother’s best friend. We were at his house often, especially on Sunday nights when Bonanza and the Spectacular World of Disney came on. Both were among the first television shows in living color and the Thomas’s had the only color TV on the block. Behind the television room was a trophy room of about 150 square feet. It was stacked floor to ceiling with racing trophies.

Cars 3 takes our hero, Lightning McQueen to a similar point in his career. The sport of racing has embraced technology and cars have gotten faster and more aerodynamically efficient. Following a bad crash and being badly shown up by a shiny new kid on the block, Jackson Storm, Lightning, on the advice of his best friend Mater, decides to seek out Doc Hudson’s mentor in hopes he might still be alive. His journey takes him back to the original stomping grounds of racing in the hills of North Carolina, to a fictional abandoned racetrack known as “Thomasville” (perhaps in tribute once again to Herb Thomas).

An article in Autoweek describes how the old racing tracks have special meaning for director Brian Fee, who grew up in “NASCAR-happy Kentucky.” The article highlights the careful research done on these old dirt tracks. They had to make an appointment to see the old track at North Wilkesboro. As in the movie, the track was padlocked and not open to the public. A caretaker let them in. Here’s how Fee described stepping onto the old track, and in the movie he successfully presented the same:

“It’s haunting,” he said. “It’s haunting to walk out onto the track and look at the ‘North Wilkesboro’ signs that still had ‘Winston Cup’ graphics; the paint’s peeling, you hear nothing but the wind blowing through the fence, which is falling down, and the leader-board advertisement, which is just ‘Winston Cup,’ was just turning, ‘Squeak, squeak.’ It reminded me of the Colosseum. You’re looking around and you’re thinking, ‘This is dead right now, but it was once packed to the gills and loud and events happened here. It would give you (goose bumps) on your arms.”

Given all its wild and spectacular graphics, entertaining quips and repartee, Cars 3 provides an encouraging message for boomers or anyone winding up a lifetime career of doing. It shows that there is life after an enjoyable career, perhaps more meaningful than that career itself was; in passing wisdom and experience on to the next generation – keeping history, knowledge, and accomplishments alive so those who follow will benefit and thrive.


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