A Canadian just might save IndyCar, and he's not high-profile driver James Hinchcliffe.
Few racing fans likely know Toronto native David Soren, but he's the Director behind the upcoming movie called Turbo, which just might help IndyCar become relevant again in a U.S. racing landscape dominated by stock car behemoth NASCAR.
"It was kind of love at first sight for IndyCar – it's been a great ride and I am wonderfully excited for it to come out," said Soren wearing a blue Turbo hat sporting the orange and blue snail character he created.
"Turbo really came out of this character, this inherent underdog. When you think about the hallmarks of a good underdog story and a character who has no possible chance of success, a snail who dreams of speed is kind of exactly that. And trying to marry Turbo's dream with the most outrageous goal is where the Indy 500 came in."
The movie chronicles the adventures of a garden snail who dreams of racing glory in the Indianapolis 500. After a freak accident, Turbo is blessed with lightning speed and heads off to fulfill his dream. The 3D film, which stars Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, and Samuel L. Jackson, opens on July 17.
James Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, Ont., has won twice in five starts in his No. 27 Go Daddy car for Andretti Autosport this year. The 26-year-old's huge personality and driving prowess have many seeing him as the future marquee driver of the series. Soren and Hinchcliffe met on Saturday and chatted about the film and their common roots in the Toronto area.
While Soren knew about the IndyCar stop in Toronto while he was growing up, his lack of driving skill – he failed his driver's test three times – and penchant for drawing made it clear that the only way he'd ever get into a race was in animated form.
That said, Soren found many similarities between the two wildly different disciplines.
"As ludicrous as it sounds, when you compare a racing team and an animation crew, we are not that different," he said.
"We are both very detail oriented and we are specific in terms of the things we need to focus on."
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, of the Ganassi team, was the film's racing expert and helped ensure the on-track scenes were as authentic and believable as possible.
The 40-year-old Soren went to Sheridan College where his graduation project called Mr. Lucky saw him recruited by DreamWorks Animation. While his classmates followed the usual road of making a one-minute short, Soren single-handedly produced a five-minute animated feature that he said "nearly killed me."
The short film got rave reviews at several festivals before being considered for nomination for a 1997 Academy Award, although it didn't end up making the final cut.
"It was a good start," Soren said with a huge grin.
"It certainly got DreamWorks' attention and was the big reason why I got hired there. It paid off and got me into a position as a storyboard artist on Eldorado (2000 animated film The Road to El Dorado.)
Soren later worked on several animated blockbusters, including the 2000 film Chicken Run and Shrek a year later, before he became the head of story for another huge success, the 2004 movie Shark Tale. His first directing experience was on a Merry Madagascar holiday special.
With his and DreamWorks' track record of success, many in the paddock hope Soren's handiwork will do big things for the profile of IndyCar.
"I am anxious to see it," said team owner Roger Penske.
"If we can excite young people about racing and to come to Indianapolis, I think it's a great opportunity to showcase the sport and the environment we are in."
IndyCar has suffered though a destructive 13-year split of open wheel racing beginning in 1995 that pitted two rival series – Championship Auto Racing Teams commonly known as CART, which later became Champ Car, and the Indy Racing League – against each other as they battled for fans and television ratings. They reunited in 2008 but the damage was done. The battle opened the door to NASCAR, which used the weakness of both series to build a juggernaut that now dwarfs the IndyCar Series in fanbase, television numbers and income.
Although Soren came up with the idea of a racing snail about a decade ago, just like in racing, timing is everything. The catalyst for the movie was former IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard, who read the script on the suggestion of DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, and fell in love with the idea.
Bernard felt the film will help introduce IndyCar to new fans in the same way that the Days of Thunder did the trick for NASCAR. Plus, he thought the story was too compelling to pass up.
"I sat in my bed – I swear to God on this – with tears coming down my cheeks and my wife is going 'you are not tearing up on an animation' and I just said: 'Honey, this is fantastic.'"
"I think this will be the biggest thing for IndyCar in bringing a younger demographic than anything that's happened in the past 30 years."
One convert to IndyCar is actor Michael Peña, who provides the voice for character Tito who becomes a friend of Turbo in the film. After his first Indy 500 experience, the 37-year-old actor from Chicago is kicking himself for not making the short flight to the famed Brickyard sooner.
"I wish I would have known about this earlier," said who also starred in the January 2013 release, Gangster Squad.
"It's really cool on television, but when you see the cars go down the straight away at lightning speed, it's unbelievable. I've got to make this a yearly thing – I am going to get into racing for sure."
Unfortunately for Bernard, he didn't last long enough to see the fruits of his labour as IndyCar boss. Bernard joined IndyCar in early 2010 after a successful 15-year run as chief executive of the Professional Bull Riders where he used his marketing savvy to take a fringe sport and turned it into an international powerhouse.
He was dumped by the series late last year after several weeks of speculation about his future and was replaced on an interim basis by Indianapolis Motor Speedway chief executive Jeff Belskus.
"In life sometimes you don't get to make decisions," said Bernard who is now the chief executive of U.S. cable channel RFD-TV.
"I was really looking forward to this year because you can see everything starting to come together is kind of fun and I like to be here to see that. I am here strictly as a fan and I am having a great time. It's like closure for me."
While Bernard's reign is over, IndyCar will benefit from his vision as the Turbo franchise which may include several films as well as a television spin-off, brings incalculable publicity for IndyCar for years to come.
"Racing fans are going to love it, parents are going to love it, kids are going to love it – it's kind of for anyone who has an outrageous dream and doesn't want to give up on it," Soren said.
"IndyCar is very excited about it. Look around this place, Turbo is everywhere this weekend and it's kind of nuts to see snails taking over the Indy 500."
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone