NASCAR ensures star-studded ‘Logan Lucky’ stays grounded in racing reality

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CONCORD, N.C. – As crew members hustled through the Sprint Cup garage last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there was one team that might have stood out.

Its car, equipment and uniforms were standard and blended in with the rest of the field furiously preparing for the Bank of America 500.

But closer scrutiny at those working on the car – while being recorded by a phalanx of cameras – would have revealed more to the story.

Or in this case, a script.

Logan Lucky spent a few days on location at Charlotte for a fully immersed shoot in the world of NASCAR. The Steven Soderbergh-directed movie, which is slated for release in the second half of 2017, is constructed around an elaborate heist during the Coca-Cola 600 and has a star-studded cast that includes Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Hilary Swank, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane and Katie Holmes.

The elevator pitch for the movie is Ocean’s Eleven (another Soderbergh vehicle project) set in NASCAR with Charlotte’s 1.5-mile track as the stand-in for Las Vegas’ Bellagio.

“It is a sort of different world,” producer Mark Johnson said. “Steven is obviously so good at doing heist movies, so the idea of doing this one in a NASCAR world is very similar. It’s the same philosophy, just different characters and different worlds. In the Ocean’s movies, you’ve got George Clooney and Brad Pitt in tuxedos. I haven’t seen a lot of tuxedos here at the racetrack.”

A scene shot last Sunday highlighted the unfamiliarity for Johnson, who is well accomplished in movies (part of the Academy Award-winning Rain Man in 1988) and TV (Emmys for outstanding drama with Breaking Bad in 2013-14) but wasn’t as well-suited for stand-in work as an extra playing a NASCAR official.

“I was the only one who didn’t know what he was doing,” Johnson said with a laugh, showing off a pair of gray inspector pants. “So I just walked around the car. I was counting the tires. Yep, there are four of them. OK!”

Johnson said screenwriter Rebecca Blunt set the film at a NASCAR track because it seemed “very exotic. The idea of having a heist take place while there’s a major race going on, just seemed like too delicious a concept to ignore.”

But the producers needed help with fleshing out story concepts and critical details, such as whether a Sprint Cup car would be equipped with a rearview mirror.

A team of NASCAR and track officials was happy to assist, particularly given the film crew’s attention to detail and nuance.

“We work on a bunch of different projects — TV and some film stuff — and we’re usually fighting to make sure that things are authentic,” NASCAR vice president of entertainment marketing and content development Zane Stoddard said. “These guys want it to be embedded, which is harder to do, so the scene is being shot that it feels like we’re there at a race. AJ Allmendinger’s car was literally right next to the car that was in the movie, and you wouldn’t have known the difference aside from the army of cameras.”

As the movie crew filmed a scene involving an ornery car owner (“a bit of a horse’s ass who has a driver that he beats up without mercy – not that there’d be anyone in NASCAR like that”), Johnson said Allmendinger’s crew wasn’t distracted.

“As long as we stayed out of their way, that was fine; they had a job to do,” Johnson said. “It was good for us in that it gives a great verisimilitude to the whole world because it is real. We’re shooting a silly scene, and yet all of this reality is happening behind us that has this great context.”

Shooting, which was scheduled to wrap this week, also took place at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the crew took great pains to ensure the exteriors (all the way down to the colors of the concession stands) still resembled Charlotte “so the NASCAR fan would be able to see the movie and not be taken out of the, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not Charlotte. That’s not how races go or what a car looks like,’” Johnson said. It was very important to get it right.”

Stoddard, who also worked with movies crews while he was a marketing executive at the NBA, said NASCAR might be the “most difficult sport to make sure you get right because it’s not about a general audience. It’s about the guy who actually knows what’s going on inside our sport.”

The Logan Lucky production consulted with the NASCAR competition department for realism, but Stoddard said the crews didn’t need much correcting.

“These guys are real, real pros,” he said. “We’ve had a hard time finding flaws in things they’ve done.”

logan-lucky-ryan-blaneyThe film also will have some nods (or “Easter eggs,” as Stoddard calls them) to eagle-eyed NASCAR fans, too, in the form of several driver cameos. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are playing West Virginia state troopers; Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are security guards; Ryan Blaney is cast as a delivery boy, and Kyle Larson will drive a limo.

But Johnson said he hopes the movie mostly wins over NASCAR fans with its realism.

“The NASCAR fan is rabid in his or her sense of the sport, its history and the meticulous of it where a lot of NBA and MLB people love the sports, but aren’t that specific,” he said. “We felt a real responsibility to get it right, even though the movie is taking place in a world that doesn’t – and really can’t — exist. It’s hopefully like all the movies and TV shows we do, you want to have respect for the audience. We’d love every NASCAR fan to see this movie. We want to make sure they feel the sport has been respected.”

The grassroots support will help an independently financed movie that is planning a wide release despite the lack of major studio support. Johnson said the movie plans to advertise through racetrack signage and ad buys on NASCAR broadcasts.

Stoddard said NASCAR will support the film through its digital and social channels.

“It’s in our best interests to make sure we’re leveraging everything we can to make NASCAR fans aware of this and engaged in it,” he said. “We’ve started to kick around some ideas. I know the film has the intent, just like with distribution, of being nonconforming, if you will. As we get past production and post-production, we’ll start to look at figure out what are some creative things we can do together to help drive the release.”

Ron Hornaday Jr. kept up a cold tradition with Hall of Fame induction

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – The call came “out of the blue” in November.

The name “Horny” flashed on Wayne Auton’s phone.

The nickname belonged to Ron Hornaday Jr., four-time Camping World Truck Series champion and one of Auton’s closet friends.

Earlier in the year, the former Truck Series director and current manager of the Xfinity Series had been the one to call Hornaday and let Hornaday know he was one of the nominees for the 2018 class in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Hey, buddy, I need you to do something for me,” Hornaday said. “I want you to induct me into the Hall of Fame.”

Auton needed a moment.

“Ron, did you just say what I thought you said?” He eventually responded.

“Yeah.”

“Damn man, you need to let somebody in your family do that.”

“No, you are my family.”

Auton began crying.

For two days Hornaday couldn’t sleep.

The 59-year-old native of Palmdale, California, fretted over the speech he’d give Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center as the first Truck Series champion to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“This is really the crown jewel of everything he’s done,” Hornaday’s wife, Lindy Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He was scared he was going to forget somebody and I said, ‘Everybody knows you and they know that you’re thankful to everybody. So don’t thank anybody specifically. Just thank them all.'”

Friday morning, Hornaday woke up without a speech set in stone.

“I got up at 9 o’clock this morning and it was like *makes gagging noises*,” Hornaday said. “I walked away, took a deep breath, come back and I couldn’t do it again. And I said to hell with it. When I started seeing my friends and family, something will come to me instead of trying to read this speech off that prompter. I got back to the room and I’ve never had an anger deal, I don’t know what it’s called in your stomach, but my stomach was turning over so bad. I was regurgitating air for about four hours. I finally fell asleep for a little while. My wife wanted to go to lunch. I sent her with all the family to lunch. I finally thought about thinking about what this really means and still didn’t know what it meant until I started seeing friends, family, peers, the Hall of Famers. They really just got me into a different mood. I did that one sober. Usually I get a couple of beers in me before I speak.

“Everybody’s telling me, ‘be yourself, take your time.’ How can you do that? It’s the freakin’ Hall of Fame!”

Those are the same words Hornaday bellowed at the beginning of his unscripted speech, with both arms raised high.

“That was the best part about the whole thing,” Hornaday said. “Had to break the ice, just to get somebody to giggle. And I knew I could get on a roll.”

Hornaday said he only forgot to mention Chevrolet, the manufacturer he earned all 55 of his NASCAR wins with.

Wayne Auton, left, poses with Lindy Hornaday and Ron Hornaday Jr. (Photo: Daniel McFadin)

During the two days Hornaday fretted over his speech, Auton was with him.

The two first encountered each other in 1995, the inaugural season of the Truck Series.

“He was there at every one of my wins,” Hornaday told NBC Sports. “He’s the one that gave me the words of wisdom, he’s the one that pulled me down and closed doors and told me what I had done wrong on the race track. He’s the one that chewed my butt out, he’s the one that when he got all done and said I’d chew his butt out. We got all done and said and we’d get a beer together.”

For 18 years, the two were “friends, enemies and warriors,” said Auton.

“Whether he won, whether he lost … when we were inside the gate we had a job to do,” Auton said. “When we walked outside the gate we were very good friends. We had to have a beer together. Cold beverage. We knew each other’s family like they were our own.”

Leading up to the ceremony, the two pestered each other about what the other would say when the time came.

“I said, ‘Ron, I just hope I don’t pee in my pants,'” Auton said.

“When he was up there speaking, I seen him shaking pretty good,” Hornaday said. “I’m glad I got back to him and made him as nervous as I was.”

Standing on the auditorium floor afterward, Auton described the moment as “the biggest honor” he could ask for.

“I’ll never top that.”

When they left the stage, it took them awhile to get back to their seats.

Auton said they stopped to have a cold Coors Light.

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

 

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”