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Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.
That was the simple pitch for “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” that won over executives in boardrooms stretching from NASCAR’s Florida headquarters all the way to Hollywood.
Wide-eyed from box office receipts of more than $300 million for three of Ferrell’s more recent films, everyone agreed the concept could be a smashing success.
“When we pitched the idea, the studios were lining up,” Ferrell said.
Sony Pictures was at the front of the pack and will release “Talladega Nights” this Friday in theaters across the country.
Back in Florida, NASCAR executives are keeping an anxious eye on the reviews and the reactions from its die-hard fan base.
In giving Ferrell the green-light, NASCAR allowed him to poke fun at their Southern heritage, the sponsor-fueled culture, the rabid fans and every other stereotype generally associated with America’s most popular racing series.
Even the title character could be offensive to some.
Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a dimwit who grows up following the edict his absentee father once told him — “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Ricky Bobby lives by the motto as he climbs his way from NASCAR crew member to champion driver, and parlays his success into newfound riches, a hot blonde wife and a pair of horrible children named Walker and Texas Ranger. He’s such a star, Powerade has commissioned him to thank its sports drink during a lengthy grace before dinner each night.
But when a French Formula One driver (Sacha Baron Cohen) invades NASCAR with the goal of dethroning Ricky Bobby, everything falls apart for him.
Ricky Bobby is in a horrible crash that leaves him too scared to race again. Then his wife leaves him for his equally dimwitted teammate and best friend, proclaiming “I am a driver’s wife. I DO NOT WORK” — a sarcastic line that drew groans during a recent industry screening of the film.
‘We didn’t poke fun at the sport’Ferrell knew he was walking a fine line between comedic humor and offensive jokes but believes he came up with a movie that allows NASCAR to laugh at itself.
“I think they really kind of know that they have such a strong footing and solid foundation, that this is just something that’s going to open up the NASCAR world to a whole ’nother audience of people,” Ferrell said. “We had fun with the sport, but we didn’t poke fun at the sport.
“It’s a mixture. We had a lot of people in early screenings, a lot of our kind of colleagues in Hollywood ... who said, ‘Wow, you guys make the sport look great, like I want to go see a race now.’ It’s a comedy movie, so you want to go laugh at stuff that’s involved with NASCAR and that sort of thing.”
Sarah Nettinga, NASCAR director of film, television and music, said NASCAR collaborated on Talladega Nights from script development through completion. By signing off on the film with a willingness to laugh at itself, NASCAR is banking on Ferrell to open the sport to a new audience without alienating its existing one.
“The fans will have an absolute blast at this movie, because as long as they remember it’s not supposed to be a dramatic representation of the sport, it is really poking fun at celebrity and having a lot of fun with it,” said Nettinga, who is credited as an executive producer.
“I think it’s good to laugh at yourself and enjoy that you’ve become part of the mainstream. That’s one of the biggest forms of compliment.”
Still, not everyone was comfortable with the idea. Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a cameo in the film and proudly walked the black-asphalt carpet at last week’s Hollywood premiere, Jeff Gordon passed on participating in the movie.
For Gordon, the four-time series champion who runs a close second to Earnhardt in popularity, the industrywide inside jokes were a little too close to comfort for the driver and his sponsors.
“I think it prevented me from being a part of the movie,” Gordon said. “We presented it to DuPont and our other sponsors talked about it, and although I think the movie is going to be hilarious — and I don’t mind laughing at things within our sport — it wasn’t the type of movie that I could have been part of.
“I would have liked to, but after seeing the script, there were some moments in there that I questioned because of the type of image I like to put out for myself and DuPont and our sponsors.”
Realistic race scenesComedic fodder aside, the film is being lauded for many of its on-track scenes.
Unlike “Days of Thunder,” the 1990 Tom Cruise movie that was panned by the NASCAR community and fans who found it stereotypical and unrealistic, Talladega Nights took pains to avoid that.
Yes, Ferrell does race his car backward in one eyebrow-raising scene. But for the most part, everything else is dead-on.
Andrew Giangola, NASCAR’s director of business communication, said Robert Yates’ mechanic shop was rented out and relocated to Talladega, where it was used to build 32 different stock cars. Ten crashes then were orchestrated at three different tracks, and Ferrell and several co-stars also took lessons at the Richard Petty Driving experience to learn how to pilot a car.
“During the training required before getting behind the wheel, the actors were quiet and apprehensive,” said driving instructor Chris McKee. “They were sponges who wanted to absorb everything. At one point, when we were taking the van ride to get the feel of the track, I was trying to be funny.
“Will Ferrell said in a loud and serious voice, ‘Excuse me, we’re trying to drive serious NASCAR stock cars here!”’
Consultants also were used to make the pit stops look realistic.
The end result, Giangola said, should please true fans.
“The way the cars look, the way the cars handle, all of that is quite authentic,” Giangola said. “There’s a lot that went into making the racing action and the wrecking look realistic, because we knew that would be important to fans.”