CONCORD, N.C. -- The checkered flag met the red carpet. The roar of car engines moved from the black asphalt to the silver screen.
And Lowe's Motor Speedway was the unlikely host Friday for the world premiere of "Cars," whose producers hope the animated movie will become a summer blockbuster.
In a fuel-injected match made in hype heaven, the public relations magic of Disney met the marketing muscle of NASCAR to create a Hollywood premiere like no other.
"Well, Disney knows how to do it, and this is a fitting way to open a movie like this," said Bob Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Co. "We're at a speedway, first of all, and it's just grand form. Grand form."
The Turn 2 grandstands at Lowe's were turned into an open-air theater with seating for 30,000. The seats faced four custom-built outdoor screens, measuring five stories high and 15 stories wide. DLP Cinema technology placed 12 projectors in the grandstands, with three focusing on each screen. A single projector produces 35 trillion different colors.
Before the premiere, the movie's stars -- including Paul Newman, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt and NASCAR great Richard Petty -- walked the red carpet outside the speedway. Fans craned for views, cheering at each celebrity, but the biggest ovation went to NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has a small role in the film.
Earnhardt was one of the last celebrities to arrive -- and walked the red carpet with the largest entourage, with about 20 family members accompanying him. Although it was a movie premiere, he felt right at home.
"There sure are a lot of people yelling "Junior,' " he joked. "I just hope I have good seats."
Set in a world populated entirely by motor vehicles, "Cars" tells the story of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Wilson), a top rookie racer on the prestigious Piston Cup circuit. On his way to California for a crucial season-ending race, McQueen gets detoured off the interstate and into the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs, where he meets a cute 2002 Porsche 911 named Sally Carrera (Hunt), a crusty 1951 Hudson Hornet with a secret (Newman) and a loyal, broken-down tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy).
"Cars" is expected to be another hit for Pixar, the studio that pioneered 3-D computer animation in hits such as "Toy Story," "Monsters Inc." and "Finding Nemo." Its June 9 release will mark the first film for the company since it was bought by former partner Disney for $7.4 billion in January.
"We certainly have high hopes for the movie," said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. "But it really appeals to everyone from 3 to 103, so we think people are really going to like it."
It is also the first directorial effort for Pixar head John Lasseter since 1999's "Toy Story 2." Lasseter, a self-professed car geek and son of a parts manager at a Chevy dealership, has said the film is a love letter to vehicles of all cylinder configurations and to Route 66, the famous road that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles.
"I knew I wanted to make a movie about cars. I love racing. I love this whole world," Lasseter said this week. "And I was really inspired by what happened on Route 66 ... the story of these old towns that were bypassed and their lifeblood was taken from them by the modern interstate."
Disney pulled out all the synergistic stops for the "Cars" premiere. The Disney-owned "Live With Regis and Kelly" talk show broadcast from the speedway on Friday morning, and "Cars" was being extensively promoted on NASCAR's heavily trafficked Web site.
Ticket proceeds benefited Speedway Children's Charities, and Disney donated $1 million with half going to Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camps for chronically ill children and the other half to Speedway Children's Charities.
Despite the starring role for Newman, who dabbles in sports car racing and owns a Champ Car team, the film's Piston Cup is a thinly veiled version of NASCAR.
"Darrell Cartrip" -- the voice of retired racer and current broadcaster Darrell Waltrip -- is in the broadcast booth for the film's racing scenes, while Petty, the seven-time champion and winningest NASCAR driver ever, is the voice for the race car known, of course, as "The King."
When Lasseter met Petty, he was so charmed by the driver's wife, Lynda, that he gave her a cameo in the film as a Petty-blue station wagon who lovingly refers to her husband as "Daddy Rabbit" -- just like in real life.
Earnhardt was thrilled with his cameo role.
"The studio was amazing," he said. "Even though it's a small part, they really took it serious and they really wanted me to do a good job. So it felt good. I wish I'd had a lot more to do, and it would have been fun if I had a bigger part."
"Cars" is animated, but with its references to bump-drafting and realistic race sequences -- down to the gritty bits of rubber that collect in the corners of the animated tracks -- Petty said Lasseter gets NASCAR right in a way that Hollywood never has. "He does a good job of just filling in, and if you are a racing fan and you know NASCAR history then you can really relate to the movie," he said. "If you're not a racing fan, you can just relate because there's a good story there."