:John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
The movie begins with two announcers, Bob Cutlass (voice of Bob Costas) and Darrell Cartrip (Darrell Waltrip) preparing for the opening of the Dinoco 400, the final race in the Piston Cup Series, the most famous and prestigious race in the United States. So far this racing season, three racers have emerged as the most likely candidates for the Piston Cup Championship, all three of them tied for the season point's lead-* #43 Strip Weathers, AKA "The King" (Richard Petty; modeled after one of the Petty's real 1970 Plymouth Superbirds), a longtime racing veteran who already has seven Piston Cups to his credit and is rumored to be retiring at the end of the current season. *#86 Chick Hicks, another veteran racer (a 1980s Buick Regal, voiced by Michael Keaton) and a longtime "second banana;" he's spent his entire racing career coming in second behind The King. *#95 Lightning McQueen, a rookie (standard stock car, voiced by Owen Wilson) This is his first year in the racing circuit and his performance has been nothing short of incredible. Speculation is that he might be the first driver to win the Piston Cup, Rookie of the Year, and Dinoco sponsorship in one sweep.
Now, the final race of the season- to decide the winner of the Piston Cup- is about to begin!As the race proceeds, Hicks (who is clearly willing to do anything to succeed) sideswipes another car- causing the inevitable multicar pileup. Lightning is barely able to dart through the wreckage and keep up with the lead cars. Then, to cement his hold on the lead, McQueen stays out on the lead lap while everyone else pits. The commentators mention that McQueen has recently fired his third crew chief, offering the explanation that Lightning prefers to work alone. Throughout the race, Lightning refuses to make complete pit stops- taking only a few seconds each lap to refuel. The strategy backfires on the last lap when his tires explode. McQueen makes a valiant effort to get across the line first, but the race ends in an absolute dead heat. Reporters interview Lightning while the judges argue over the result.
McQueen repeats again that he is a "one-man show. " His pit crew, fed up with Lightning's shoddy treatment, quit in the middle of the interview. Chick and Lightning trade insults until The King comes over to have a word with Lightning. The King tells McQueen that his talent is extraordinary, but his attitude is stupid- Lightning can't win without a good team behind him. Lightning's idea of a good team is Dinoco, the most prestigious sponsor on the racing circuit (and The Kings' current sponsor; Lightning is certain that if he wins the Piston Cup he will be offered the chance at a Dinoco sponsorship.
)An announcement regarding the outcome of the race comes over the loudspeakers. Officials declare that a tiebreaker race (between Chick, Lightning and The King) will be held in California next week to determine the championship. Lightning meets with his transporter, Mack (a 1980 Mack Super-Liner truck, voiced by John Ratzenberger) after the announcement. Mack reminds McQueen that he needs to make a personal appearance for his sponsor, Rust-Eze. Lightning films a commercial for Rust-Eze and talks to a group of rusted out vehicles brought to the personal appearance by Rusty & Dusty, heads of the company (voiced by Car Talk hosts and brothers Tom & Ray Magliozzi respectively). McQueen forcibly puts on a good face for the crowd but is obviously unhappy working for a small-time group. On the road with Mack, Lightning is desperate to be the first competitor to arrive at California. He refuses to let Mack stop off and rest, forcing him to drive on through the night.
While on Interstate 40, Mack is confronted by a gang of street racers while he is drowsy, who force him onto the shoulder. The vibration from the rumble strips (designed to alert drowsy drivers that they are drifting off the road) accidentally causes a Lightning figurine to land on the button that opens the back door of the truck, and causes the sleeping Lightning to fall out. Lightning, terrified about being lost, desperately rushes to try and find Mack but ends up leaving the highway at the next exit and following a semi that he thinks is Mack but turns out to be a Peterbilt, who rudely tells McQueen to turn on his headlights. While Lightning is speeding, he gets lost in the dark country roads. He passes a police car (Michael Wallis) waiting in a speed trap, who pulls out and chases after Lightning. Lightning pedals for it when he hears the police car backfiring (thinking he is being shot at).
Lightning loses control, spinning wildly and becoming entangled in several power lines. He tears through a small town and ends up shredding a large gash down the main street before finally coming to a stop in front of the Sheriff. The next morning, Mack arrives at the track alone and a huge manhunt begins to try and find Lightning McQueen. Lightning wakes up in an impound lot strapped with a parking boot and confronted by a rusted tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Mater tells Lightning that he is in the town of Radiator Springs, a spot just off old U. S.
Route 66. The Sheriff shows up to take Lightning to court for his actions. The other citizens of Radiator Springs- Fillmore (George Carlin), who owns a shop selling his own organic fuel; Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni), who run a tire shop; Ramone (Cheech Marin), who runs a paint and body shop; Flo (Jenifer Lewis), who runs a gas station/cafe; Sarge (Paul Dooley), a Humvee who sells surplus; Lizzie (Katherine Helmond), an antiques dealer; and Red (Joe Ranft), the town's fire truck - have all turned out to demand punishment for Lightning's reckless driving, which caused a large amount of damage to the town. The town's physician and judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), arrives to try McQueen's case. At first, Doc is ready to impose serious hard time on the culprit but upon getting a close look at Lightning orders him thrown out of town. A female interrupts the judge's rulings, and Lightning is immediately smitten. But the newcomer, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a 2002 Porsche 911, is the town's attorney. Sally persuades Doc to sentence Lightning to community service and repair the damage to the road.
Doc relents, telling Lightning that he will be set free once the road is finished (which at his estimate should take five days). When Mater brings out Bessie, a massive asphalt paving machine, Lightning makes a break for it as soon as his parking boot is undone, leaving Mater to quip that he should have undone the boot after Lightning was hooked up. But Lightning only makes it a few miles out of town before he breaks down. Sally & the Sheriff catch up with him and laugh at his attempt, explaining that they have siphoned Lightning's gas tank. The townsfolk watch as Lightning begins repaving the road. Lightning tries to convince them of his fame in the hopes of being set free. He almost convinces Luigi by mentioning his status as a racecar, but Luigi loses interest soon after when it turns out he only cares about meeting a real Formula One racecar. Lightning, remembering the deal (he goes free when the road is done) hauls the paving machine at full throttle, running down the road and creating an uneven and bumpy finish.
The townspeople are insulted by his attitude and his work. Doc challenges Lightning to a race- if Lightning wins, he goes off free. If Doc wins, Lightning has to scape off the current layer of pavement and do the road all over again. Lightning accepts, not seeing the Doc as a threat. At a dirt course on the outskirts, Lightning rockets off the starting line, but Doc doesn't even move. As he speeds into the first turn of the course, Lightning's tires fail on the dirt and he crashes. Doc wins by default.
Lightning reluctantly turns to work at scraping up the pavement, grumbling the whole time. Several of the townsfolk offer Lightning their services (Luigi sells tires, Fillmore supplies organic fuel, Ramone offers custom paintjobs, etc. ) but Lightning is too frustrated with his situation to accept anything from them. By the next morning, Doc finds that the road is about 1/3 finished. Doc meets with the Sheriff, who confirms that Lightning ran out of asphalt while working and spent the rest of the night trying to make the turn that caused him to wreck the day before. Doc confronts Lightning, suggesting that he "turn right to go left. " Lightning, extremely skeptical, tries it, but it backfires and sends him back over the edge of the cliff.
Lightning resumes repaving the road when he suffers a slow leak in one tire. Guido begins to fix it, and Luigi explains that Guido dreams of working at a real racetrack pit stop. Sally, impressed by Lightning's work and his effect on the town, offers Lightning a place at the Cozy Cone motel rather than another night at the impound. Lightning can't resist the opportunity to refuse. The Sheriff places Mater in charge of watching Lightning for the next night. Mater takes McQueen out to a remote field, where they go tractor-tipping, which involves creeping up to a tractor while it is sleeping, then startling it, which causes the tractor to rear up on its back wheels. Mater gives a demonstration of it, but is unable to tip more than one tractor at a time. Lightning revs his engine and causes every single tractor to tip over.
They are almost caught by Frank, the huge threshing machine who oversees the tractors, and have to speed away. On the way back to town, Mater shows off his skills as "world's best backwards driver" - a talent that stuns Lightning. Mater proclaims Lightning to be his "best friend," and Lightning seems to be genuinely touched by the affection. The next morning, Lightning waits at Doc's garage to get his daily gas ration. While waiting, he wanders into a dusty workshop belonging to Doc and finds several Piston Cup trophies on the floor, and racing memorabilia.
A newspaper on the floor answers Lightning's question- Doc is actually the legendary Hudson Hornet, a legendary racecar who still holds the record for most wins in a single season (27 in 1952 alone). But Doc refuses to talk about his racing career. To him, the trophies are "just a bunch of empty cups. "Sally takes Lightning on a tour of the surrounding landmarks and explains the history of the town. Route 66 used to be the main transportation road, and Radiator Springs was once a famous stop along U. S. Route 66.
Radiator Springs was bypassed when Interstate 40 was constructed in favor of saving ten minutes of travel time. Now the once thriving town is floundering; almost nobody comes through there anymore. Unfortunately, Lightning and Mater's actions of the previous night cause trouble when the tractors start stampeding through the town. As he helps round them back up, Lightning spots Doc on the race course outside of town. Doc speeds through, easily making the turn Lightning couldn't. McQueen confronts Doc about his racing and why (if he's so talented) Doc didn't continue his racing career. Doc finally comes clean: He didn't quit, but the organization forced him into retirement after a terrible wreck forced him to sit out an entire season. When he had the chance to return, the sponsors passed him over to a hotshot rookie just like McQueen.
The next day everyone wakes up to find the road has been finished. Lightning now has his chance to leave, but instead chooses to stay behind and accept the services of the townsfolk - including new fuel from Fillmore, tires from Luigi and a new paint scheme from Ramone. As the town celebrates into the night over the completion of their new road, a swarm of reporters and media vehicles swarm in to reclaim McQueen. Before he can explain anything or talk to any of the townsfolk, Lightning is loaded back onto Mack and sent off to California. Sally learns that Doc was the one who alerted the media to Lightning's location and is furious at his actions. Lightning arrives in California and begins preparing for the big race, with Mack serving as his pit crew. The King and Chick Hicks get off to a decent start, but Lightning's memories of Sally and his time in Radiator Springs are interfering with his performance and cause him to lose time.
As McQueen tries to pull himself together, Doc's voice comes out on McQueen's radio. He and most of the other Radiator Springs residents have come to encourage Lightning and serve as his pit crew, with Doc serving as crew chief and decked out in his old paint scheme. Cameras in the crowd spot Doc and recognize the legendary Hudson Hornet has come out of retirement. Lightning rockets out of the pit area, desperate to catch up to the others. As the laps wind down, Chick makes contact with Lightning and causes him to spin out. But moments later, Chick is surprised when Lightning zooms passes him, driving backwards. Hicks then tries to force McQueen off the road-causing Lightning to blow a tire.
Guido prepares for Lightning's arrival, then completes the fastest pit stop in Piston Cup history by speed-changing all four tires in under four seconds single-handed, shocking the forklifts on Chick's pit crew such that they drop their mustache-shaped grilles. Guido proudly tells off Chick's crew saying "Peet stop!"The three racers are down to the last lap as Lightning pulls into first place. Chick smashes Lightning once again, sending him careening off the track. Lightning, however, takes the lead by turning his tires hard to the right while sliding left and reclaims the lead position. Chick, in a desperate attempt to win, sideswipes The King, sending him flipping multiple times through the air and landing, heavily battered and damaged on the infield. Lightning screeches to a halt when he sees the King's state, remembering what happened to Doc. Since Lightning stopped just before the finish line, Chick Hicks speeds across for first place.
Lightning goes back and pushes the King the rest of the way to the finish line, letting the famous competitor finish his last race with dignity. Lightning tells the King that the Piston is "Just an empty cup," echoing Doc's sentiments. Chick Hicks is given the Piston Cup. However, he is jeered and taunted by the crowd for his actions, making it a hollow victory at best. Meanwhile, Lightning is cheered and congratulated for his act of good sportsmanship. Tex, head of the Dinoco company, offers Lightning a sponsorship because of his fine job. Lightning considers, but decides to stay with Rust-Eze because they gave him his big chance. Guido and Luigi are dumbfounded when an actual Ferrari shows up at their store, because McQueen said it is the best place in the world to get tires.
Lightning McQueen moves back to Radiator Springs and decides to place his headquarters in the town, making the location famous once more and having the maps redrawn as "Historic Route 66. "A series of scenes during the credits show what happens to Radiator Springs afterwards:* Flo's V8 café is seen full of customers, while customers try Ramone's body art. * A museum of Doc Hudson's racing days opens. We see The King and his wife (who is appropriately voiced by the late Lynda Petty), as well as fellow racecar Junior (voiced by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
and modeled after Earnhardt's #8 Chevrolet Monte Carlo) in there. *Sarge opens a boot camp for off-road vehicles (who have never been off-road), and orders a Hummer who protests about getting dirty to drop and give him 20 miles. *In a touch of poetic justice, the street racers who were responsible for McQueen's dilemma are caught by Sheriff speeding near Radiator Springs. They are locked into an impound lot and are sentenced to towing Bessie. *The Radiator Springs Drive-In Movie Theater opens, and shows car versions of popular Pixar movies, including Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks, Inc.
, and A Bug's Life. The in-joke shown is that Mack is praising Hamm the piggy truck, the Abominable Snowplow, and P. T. Flea - all of whom are voiced by John Ratzenburger, like Mack. When Mack realizes this, he wonders what kind of cut-rate production this is to reuse his voice.