The Cars Story and Route 66

The vast majority of travelers that spend time on Historic Route 66 are familiar with the 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars. The animated movie tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a race car that finds himself stuck in the small western Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. The town is the home of many colorful characters and does a superb job of distilling the Route 66 experience into a piece of pop culture that continues to inspire people to take their own trips down the road.

A lot of towns along the 2,440 miles of Highway 66 claim that they are the real Radiator Springs. Truthfully, the town in the movie is an amalgam of the road. For example: Ramone’s Body Shop is the U-Drop Inn from Shamrock, TX. Radiator Springs Curio Shop is a mix of MANY roadside shops on the road, including the Sandhills Curiosity Shoppe in Erick, OK and the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Joseph City, AZ. The Cozy Cone Motel is based on the Wigwam Motel (there’s one in Holbrook, AZ and one in San Bernardino, CA). And so many other touches from so many other places.

The Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. Check out the wooden models of Lightning McQueen, Sally, and the Sheriff

The cars themselves were also mostly inspired by real people from the Mother Road. Sally Carrera came from Dawn Welch, the owner of the Rock Cafe that came to Stroud Oklahoma “temporarily” and fell in love with the place. Fillmore came from Bob Waldmire, the hippie artist and road wanderer that still has beautiful work all along the road. Doc Hudson is inspired by Paul Newman himself, who also had a career as a race car driver. Mater, who has become the most popular character of them all, has several inspirations – we’ll get to that in a moment.

The vintage police car in Oklahoma City that served as the initial sketch inspiration for The Sheriff of Radiator Springs

The Sheriff of Radiator Springs is famously voiced by Michael Wallis, author of Route 66: The Mother Road. Wallis also led the Pixar team down the road itself in 2001, while the Cars story was being crafted. It was on this trip that the writers and animators saw the locations and met the people that would later come together to become Radiator Springs. The initial inspiration for Mater came from their stop in Galena, Kansas.

The Original Mater, sitting at Cars on the Route in Galena, Kansas

An old, rusted 1951 International Harvester boom truck sitting next to an abandoned gas station caught the eye of Joe Ranft. Photos were taken and sketches were made. Mater’s design was refined as the story took shape, but it was this truck that came first. Today, this truck sits outside of that same service station – no longer abandoned, but now a popular gift shop and restaurant called Cars on the Route.

Other parts of Galena have fully leaned in to the Cars iconography, too. There’s a collection on the edge of town with tipped tractors, Luigi’s Pit Stop, and a Sheriff car on a pole. After today, there’s another piece of Cars in Galena to visit.

The new Doc Hudson car at Gearhead Curios

Gearhead Curios unveiled a “Doc Hudson” Hornet at their former Texaco station on August 22nd. The station is being converted into a gift shop; it’s another iconic Route 66 photo op in this town of 2800.

Who else inspired Mater, you might ask? Well, surely there are many more…but there are two other folks that jump immediately to mind.

That’s me with Dean Walker – and his Crazy Legs

‘Crazy Legs’ Dean Walker from Baxter Springs, Kansas can turn his feet all the way around 180 degrees. That’s why Mater is so good at driving backwards.

Hanging out with the inimitable Harley Russell

Harley Russell, the Mediocre Music Maker from Erick, Oklahoma is a wild character. He classifies himself as “an experience” and I cannot argue with his logic. If you’ve ever stopped by to seem “rednecks work and play in their own environment” as he and his late wife Annabelle would say, you know what I mean. If you haven’t been there — well, it’s tough to explain. But once you know Harley, you can definitely see how his unconventional style worked its way into Mater’s heritage.

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