‘Talladega Nights’ at 10: An oral history

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On Aug. 4, 2006, Ricky Bobby power slid his way into American movie theaters, the end result of more than a year of work. That work, “Talladega Nights,” began with a pitch that has become a tale right out of Hollywood legend. It was all of six words: “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver” and yet studios fought over the rights. Why? Because Ferrell was coming off of an incredible run of box office success, from “Old School” to “Elf” to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” It was Ferrell’s partner on “Anchorman,” fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum director/writer Adam McKay, who was also on board pitching the NASCAR project.

They ended up signing on with Sony Pictures. But to make the film they really wanted, Ferrell and McKay needed NASCAR itself to be fully on board. They found that the sanctioning body had an office in Los Angeles specifically for dealing with Hollywood.

They also found a surprisingly enthusiastic ally, as the sanctioning body helped them land everything from cooperation from tracks and teams to sponsorship deals.

Will Ferrell, aka Ricky Bobby: “We were real adamant up front that our goal wasn’t to make fun of NASCAR. We wanted to have fun with NASCAR. We were fascinated by this idea of drivers being teammates but also competing, like Ricky and Cal [Naughton Jr.]. Shake and bake, by the way. So, we said give us the inside jokes from the people who do this for a living and we’ll roll with it. That’s where characters like my wife, Carley, came from. We found that no one loved “Anchorman” more than the people who actually work in television news. I always felt like people in NASCAR could laugh at this, too. And if they didn’t … well, I’m a pretty big guy and most race car drivers are pretty small, so they knew what was up.”

Sarah Nettinga, then-NASCAR managing director, media and entertainment marketing: “They did their research. They knew the sport. They knew how we worked and they knew we were about collaboration. If they didn’t, I think they figured that out very quickly. I think what really stood out to us was that they were going for true and authentic. And that would work, like anything in satirical comedy. If you do what’s authentic, it works. If you just make it all up, it’s not funny.”

Ferrell Co. set up shop in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, holding local auditions for smaller parts, including the kids who would famously play the racer’s uber-delinquent sons. Meanwhile the headliners were sent to school, working with the instructors at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, the same outfit that would supply some of the cars for the movie’s racing scenes, along with the Fast Track Driving School.

Chris McKee, then-CMO, Richard Petty Driving Experience (now with MRN Radio): “It was Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. They were going to do the one-day driving school and the first thing we did was take them around the track in a van. After one lap they were done. They were hollering to get off the track. We thought they were joking, so we were laughing. But when we stopped on pit road, they all three got out and headed straight for their rental car. They were dead serious. It was Reilly who stopped them and said, ‘Guys, we can’t be wusses here. We can’t make a NASCAR movie and not actually experience being in a race car.’ So we did two-seater rides with each of them … and same thing, they were done, totally freaked out. There was only one hour left and we begged them to start the driving school, the baby steps. Well, they ended up staying for another two and a half hours. It took a while but they loved it.”

Ferrell: “The scene where Ricky comes back and thinks he’s going fast, but he’s really only going 25 miles per hour, totally terrified. That was pretty much based on real-life experience.”

Scared or not, it was mighty heady cast for a racing flick, including Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile”) as crew chief Lucius Washington, future five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams as PR girl/Ricky’s love interest Susan, Emmy and Golden Globe winner Jane Lynch as Ricky’s mother Lucy, and Sasha Baron Cohen as arch-enemy Jean Girard, who would be nominated for an Oscar and win a Golden Globe that very year for “Borat.” But the real home run was landing recent Oscar nominee Reilly (“Chicago”) as Bobby’s best bud and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr. Landing Reilly was also a coup in that he’d also been part of the cast for “Days of Thunder,” when, in just his third film role, he’d played Cole Trickle pit crew member Buck Bretherton.

John C. Reilly, aka Cal Naughton Jr.: “Yeah, my only advice to Adam and Will when it came to my “Days of Thunder” experience was to tell them to ignore my entire acting performance (laughs). Actually, the two experiences were both big for me. “Days of Thunder” was just bizarre because my first films had been these really serious epics and now I was on this action set and it was the ’90s and there was all this partying going on. It was nuts. I met Will through my friend (SNL alum) Molly Shannon and “Talladega Nights” introduced me to this comedy improv style of making movies. Adam is behind the camera just rolling and watching Will crank out lines and I’m like, ‘damn, this is fun.’ The one scene from “Days of Thunder” that I wanted to recreate in Talladega Nights was when Robert Duvall (crew chief Harry Hogge) is alone with the car and talking to it at night like it’s a person. It gets almost inappropriate. ‘I’m gonna buff you out and pump you full of high octane, baby ….’ We were going to shoot a scene where I was talking and rubbing and then getting way too intimate with the car, but it didn’t make it. That was probably for the best.”

Speaking of “Thunder,” the mere mention of that 1990 film still draws groans and eye rolls from NASCAR racers who were around when that movie was shot. Those bad feelings led to a lot of reluctance among 2005’s teams and drivers to participate, despite NASCAR’s involvement.

Jeff Gordon: “I love Will Ferrell and I knew it would be funny. I wanted to be involved, but when we took the script to our sponsors they didn’t feel like it was a great fit for them. I understood. I was disappointed, but I understood. We certainly weren’t alone in that situation.”

In the end, only two drivers made significant cameos. Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared in one scene asking for Ricky’s autograph (he also helped promote the film after its release). Jamie McMurray, then driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, duels Ricky Bobby to the finish line, a showdown won by Bobby while driving backwards and flipping McMurray a middle finger. The scene wasn’t shot on the track, but on a soundstage in uptown Charlotte. The actor and the driver were behind the wheel of half-finished race cars in front of green screens.

Jamie McMurray: “We did about 30 takes and every time Will would say something different. And the problem was that I kept laughing and we’d have to do it over. In the end, I was like, ‘Well, they’ll never use the stuff of him flipping me off.’ So of course that’s exactly what they used.”

Ferrell: “The winning backwards scene was the one scene where we were like, ‘OK, if the NASCAR fans are going to say, “hey now, this might be a little too much,” that was it.’ But I think that if Ricky was approached with any of those concerns then he would give them the same reaction that he gave Jamie McMurray.”

Throughout fall 2005, it felt the entirety of Charlotte was a working set. A just-shuttered sports bar was revived as The Pit Stop where French F1 driver Jean Girard broke Bobby’s arm over a pool table. More than a few citizens were angered when a stretch of just-finished highway was closed to shoot the Colombian Bam-Bam police car chase. And a local church was commandeered to stand in as the hospital where Ricky plays wheelchair basketball … even though he doesn’t actually need a wheelchair. When the doctor explains to Lucius and Cal that it’s all in Ricky’s head, Cal replies, “When you say psychosomatic, you mean like he can start fires with his mind?”

Robin Coira, Executive Minister, Myers Park Baptist Church: “They liked it so much here that they started renting it out to play games. On Sunday mornings we would be in our worship services upstairs and people had no idea that Anchorman was down here playing basketball with the crew. Every now and then we’ll have someone here for an event and they’ll look around like it feels familiar and they’ll say, ‘Hey, is this Ricky Bobby’s gym?'”

The film’s racing scenes were shot at three locations, Talladega Superspeedway, the abandoned North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham and Charlotte Motor Speedway. The signature racing action was at Charlotte, most memorably when Ricky Bobby escapes his crashed car believing he is on fire, strips down to his underwear and begins crying to the heavens — not to mention Oprah and Tom Cruise — for help. The track safety crew member who yells one of the film’s most enduring lines — “You’re not on fire, Ricky Bobby!” — was Charlotte-based actor William Boyer.

William Boyer, aka Rescue Worker: “That night I jumped on a golf cart to ride out to set (Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Turn 3) and I realize the other guy in the cart with me was Will. Nicest guy ever. He was at the height of his popularity and yet talked to nobodies like they were somebodies. When we got there, Adam McKay said, ‘Just react to whatever Ricky does, as a safety worker would normally do in this situation’ … but there was nothing normal about it! They didn’t tell us what Will was going to do. So he starts running around screaming crazy talk. What’s my job? To catch him. And if he swung at me, I tried to block him and I swung back. I ended up totally covered in Will Ferrell’s sweat. We were out there for hours and between takes Will would just be standing there in his white underwear, like it was nothing. It was so gross and yet it was so awesome.”

Ferrell: “It’s in all of my contracts that I get a certain number of minutes of screen time in the same pair of tighty whities. The exact same pair.”

But nothing, not even a man screaming in his skivvies, can hold a candle to the film’s finale, a mano a mano showdown between Girard and Bobby at, naturally, Talladega. The two do an ultra-violent synchronized barrel roll down the front stretch, eventually emerging from their cars for a foot race to the finish line. When Bobby defeats Girard by a literal fingertip, the Frenchman rewards him with a full-on French kiss in front of NASCAR’s longest grandstand.

Andy Hillenburg, owner, Fast Track Driving School: “When they started going over what they wanted to do with that final crash, it was like, ‘whoa … NASCAR is cool with this?‘ And then someone with NASCAR came up with what I thought was a great idea. Fans are always complaining about commercials interrupting action during TV broadcasts, so why not do that in the middle of the crash?”

Nettinga: “Adam really wanted to do big car stunts. At this point in his career he’d never had that opportunity. We knew it would be cool and be big, but it was also scary and we didn’t want the crowd to feel like the guys were hurt. That was kind of a downer. We wanted to give Adam what he wanted as a vision, this awesome car stunt, but not a nightmare. So maybe create some irony of the moment? Adam was the one who edited it. He made it work. That’s how this whole experience was. People think these guys just show up and ad-lib everything, but not the actual filmmaking process. The days at the track, everything was so planned, a month in advance. There was a minute-by-minute. Everyone knew where they were supposed to be and how long they were supposed to be there. We did have a race going on at the same time.”

Grant Lynch, chairman, Talladega Superspeedway: “People ask me all the time, why aren’t you in the movie? Well, I was a little busy! They shot the finale in front of the crowd. That’s for real, not added in later. So when those guys were running you heard the grandstand make this noise like, ‘wait, what are we looking at, isn’t this a racing movie?’ Then came the kiss. That was funny.”

Nettinga: The crowd actually sounded like they were OK with it. I think everyone by that point knew what we were dealing with and they were having fun with it, too.”

Lynch: Honestly, there are people here in town who are still offended by it. Not a lot, but a few. I just always say to them, ‘Hey you knew this was going to be a Will Ferrell movie, right?’

Ferrell: “You know we won an award for that kiss, right? An MTV Movie Award. That’s an award-winning kiss. I would like very much for you to show me all of the awards you have received for kissing people.”

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” opened on a whopping 3,803 screens, raking in $47 million during the first three days. That’s still Ferrell’s second-best opening weekend, trailing only 2014’s The Lego Movie. It’s also his third-highest grossing non-animated film, earning $148 million, nearly twice that of the original Anchorman. It is also the second-biggest NASCAR film, trailing only Pixar’s “Cars,” released earlier that same summer. Nettinga’s boss, Dick Glover, left NASCAR to run McKay and Ferrell’s new venture, “Funny Or Die.” And thanks to cable television, “Talladega Nights” will never die. Future generations will likely be declaring “If you ain’t first, you’re last” until the film’s 20th anniversary in 2026. The sigh of relief that accompanied that ’06 debut can still be heard around the racing world.

Humpy Wheeler, then-president, Charlotte Motor Speedway: “NASCAR wasn’t really involved in “Cars.” We were at the speedway [though]. We had a big red carpet premiere and everything. They had the same for Ricky Bobby, but out in Los Angeles. Here in Charlotte they did an advanced screening for people in the racing industry. I remember (NASCAR president) Mike Helton was sitting right in the middle of the theater. The first half-hour of the film no one would laugh because they were watching him to see if he was laughing. I think he was pretty nervous. You have to remember, NASCAR movie premieres have historically been a disaster. People booed “Days of Thunder.” They got up and walked out of a terrible film in the 1960s called “Red Line 7000.” But when Ricky Bobby’s wife declared that Ricky had to get a job because “I am a driver’s wife! I don’t work!” That was what you call an ice breaker, a spot-on inside joke. Mike Helton cracked up. Then everyone did.”

Nettinga: “It wasn’t relief as much as it was a validating moment. The success of it proved the power of branded entertainment. I knew this could work, having cooperation between a studio and a sanctioning body, a sports league, and it still be entertaining and a hit.”

Lynch: “I watched it with my family just last week. We were flipping channels and there it was. We giggled the whole way through it, even now, 10 years later.”

Ferrell: “Those are the stories I like to hear. It means we got it right. I mean, as right as a movie like this can be. No one was too mad at us. I did have one driver show up at my house and threaten to drag me behind his car at Daytona, but just one. No, I’m kidding that didn’t happen. Maybe. Or maybe I am blinking out “help me” in Morse code with my eyelids right now. This is over the phone, so I guess you’ll never know.”



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