“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
— Ricky Bobby
TALLADEGA — A decade ago, NASCAR needed a forklift to move all its corporate dollars around. It was a conservative operation, followed by the conservative audience that politicians had labeled “NASCAR Dads.” The racing poohbahs were not, shall we say, overburdened with whimsy or a sense of humor.
Right here, Talladega Superspeedway actively tried to dodge rather than embrace its reputation for carnage on the track and bacchanalia off it.
So how in the world could NASCAR open its gates to the liberal West Coast views of Hollywood? How could it facilitate an actor and film-maker known for sophomoric humor, with a film that would ridicule the corporate synergy that fueled the sport?
Rick Humphrey sure didn’t know. He was the general manager at Talladega Superspeedway when Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay conjured the notion of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
“I remember Grant (Lynch, track chairman) and I were talking and we weren’t in favor of it. ‘Talladega Nights.’ What does that mean?” Humphrey recalls. “But we were getting calls from somebody in Daytona (NASCAR headquarters) and they recommended we go that route. Somebody way up thought it would be a good idea.”
“We were real adamant up front that our goal wasn't to make fun of NASCAR. We wanted to have fun with NASCAR,” Ferrell, the star and co-writer, told Ryan McGee of ESPN.com.
Thus, Talladega and Hollywood tied the knot in a most unexpected marriage and the most raucous film ever to tease NASCAR hit the screen 10 years ago. To commemorate the milestone, a 10th anniversary DVD is soon being released by Sony.
“Talladega Nights” was a commercial success, earning $47 million its first weekend and more than $160 million in theaters worldwide. And while critics hardly labeled it a cinematic classic, they appreciated the laughs.
“Though the movie about a moronic NASCAR racer overall is uneven and Ricky Bobby's saga lacks focus, the stupid-comical banter and the lampooning of this particular brand of car racing proves entertaining,” wrote USA Today, an echo of what most critics said.
The heart and soul of the movie was Ferrell, who had long achieved stardom through NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and films like “Old School,” “Elf” and “Anchorman,” portraying in each an off-color, off-kilter, exaggeration of a character.
There was an impressive cast around him, including the five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams, Oscar nominee John C. Reilly, and three-time Emmy winner Jane Lynch. Sacha Baron Cohen built a franchise out of his Borat character, and actors like Molly Shannon, Jack McBrayer, David Koechner and Gary Cole are familiar talents whose names we don’t automatically place with their faces.
The late Shirley Fulton Crumley of Birmingham was a casting director and several Alabamians had roles, including Trussville’s Luke Bigham (young Ricky Bobby) and Ricky Bobby’s two sons, Pell City’s Houston Tumlin (Walker) and Clanton’s Grayson Russell (Texas Ranger). Birmingham broadcaster Matt Coulter played himself as Talladega’s P.A. announcer.
The assumption is, if you’re read this far, you’ve already seen “Talladega Nights.” There is no reason to exclaim “spoiler alert.”
Ricky Bobby is as much a commercial pitchman as a driver, with a “red-hot smokin’ wife” and two despicable sons. His sidekick is Cal Naughton Jr., who loyally accepts second place — inexorably tied by their “shake and bake” mantra.
Ricky Bobby’s career is sidetracked by a wreck. His life becomes complicated by the arrival of nemesis Jean Gerard, the gay Frenchman whose characterization by Cohen pushes P.C. boundaries to the limit, a complex father-son relationship, divorce and his own fear; the latter prompts another puerile Ferrell moment of sprinting around in his underwear.
Then, of course, it all climaxes by vanquishing the nemesis and a reunion with the wayward father.
It is silly and sophomoric. But it’s also an ingenious satire on NASCAR and all sports movies, and even a little about the region we call home.
“I think the movie has done so well because it celebrated Southern culture while having fun with it,” McKay told Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post.
“That’s about as good as it gets. That’s pretty funny,” driver Carl Edwards says. “They make fun of every part of our sport and they actually hit home with a bunch of it.”
Poking fun at the whole commercial aspect of NASCAR, from the decals on the cars to the sponsor-provided fast-food array at the Bobby dinner table, was something McKay focused on.
“If you love NASCAR, you love the movie. If you think NASCAR got sold out to corporate values, you love the movie,” he told The Washington Post. “What I didn’t predict was that both could coexist.”
“I thought it was hilarious,” Humphrey says. “I remember some other movies came out that were maybe not so well-received, that industry-wide people felt like it gave us a bad name.
“But I think with a Will Ferrell movie, you go in with a different mindset. You know if Will Ferrell is involved, it’s going to be funny.”