Cars 3 is in theaters now, and it’s getting pretty decent reviews. It’s also revived a slew of Internet chatter about the Cars universe — which, if you try to think beyond “it’s just a cartoon,” is a pretty insane idea. Topics have included:

We’re not going to get bogged down into questions of “why do they have door handles” or “how exactly do they reproduce” … instead, we’re going to make the argument that the small town our Cars heroes live in — Radiator Springs — is actually a West Coast version of Sanford, North Carolina.

If you remember from the first Cars movie, Radiator Springs is the once-bustling fictional town between Gallup, N.M. and the Sonora Desert, that took an economic hit when Interstate 40 drew traffic away from the famous Route 66. Route 66 — known as Main Street America — runs east to west from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. In the first movie, a young up-and-coming race car named Lightning McQueen gets lost on his way to a race in California and reluctantly befriends the “small town folk” and eventually helps them turn around their dreary town and make it a tourist stop once again. Oh, and there’s a tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.

It’s been documented that Radiator Springs is a conglomerate of real-life Route 66 towns — the traffic cone motel is based on the wigwam motels in Arizona and California, and and the mountain that overlooks the town is based on an actual mountain in New Mexico. So we’re not saying Radiator Springs is Sanford.

But there are a few interesting connections.


The Interstate

According to Cars lore, Radiator Springs was a popular rest area where “almost all cars would stop to shop and fill their gas tank.” In the early 1980s, though, Interstate 40 was built, bypassing the town and practically crushing its economy. In the movie, Route 66 was “decommissioned” shortly after the interstate’s completion.

Sanford, North Carolina, wasn’t “crushed” by Interstate 95, but the decision to build the interstate about 45 minutes east of the city did have pretty big ramifications.

Lee County was officially formed in 1907, a year before the United States began construction of the Capital Highway, an auto trail built to encourage counties along the route to improve their roads between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In the 1940s and 50s, several changes to what became U.S. 1 were made, including a bypass built west of Sanford (the current U.S. 1 route). It’s no coincidence that Sanford’s population at that time grew dramatically — from 4,960 people in the 1940 Census to 10,013 people in 1950 and 12,253 in 1960.

For decades, U.S. 1 was the main artery of the East Coast. Its 2,369 miles of road still runs from Fort Kent, Maine at the Canadian border to Key West, Florida. It’s the longest north-south road in the U.S.

Interstate 95 entered the lexicon of North Carolina travel in the late 50s, but the Interstate didn’t fully connect the two N.C. borders until 1980 when the final 20-mile stretch near Cumberland County was completed. Sanford’s population from the 1950 Census to 1990 grew by just over 4,000 people in that 40-year span. (Of course, there were other contributing factors … the economy, manufacturing industry, etc … but the Interstate meant fewer people had to travel through Sanford).

Like Radiator Springs, the Interstate system did Sanford no favors.


The Hudson Hornet

The Fabulous Hudson Hornet is one of the most famous cars in NASCAR history. And its most decorated driver was a native of Sanford — Herb Thomas.

Thomas won the 1951 NASCAR Grand National Championship in his first year driving the Fabulous Hudson Hornet. He won 12 races in the car in ’53, becoming the series’ first two-time champion. Hudson drove the car through ’54, before switching to Chevys and Buicks in ’55. He was involved in a serious crash in a Buick in Charlotte that year, forcing him to miss three months of the racing season. He was severely injured a few years later in a race in Shelby, effectively ending his NASCAR career (despite a few return attempts).

doc_hudsonThomas’ story (and, of course, the car) were the inspiration behind the Cars character Doc Hudson. In the movie, Hudson was a famous Piston Cup racer who suffered a massive accident in 1954, hospitalizing him for several years. He, like Thomas, would return around 1970, but would find that the racing world had left him behind. Hudson retired from the sport and found refuge in Radiator Springs, where he’d become mayor, judge and CEO of the town.

Herb Thomas did return to Sanford and died in his hometown in 2000 at the age of 77. He did not become mayor, judge and CEO of the city, but he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame after his death in 2013 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America last January.

A mural of Thomas and the Hudson Hornet can be found on South Steele Street in Downtown Sanford.

Other musings

  • In the movie, Radiator Springs found a rebirth thanks to Lightning McQueen. A racer was not the economic savior for Sanford, but the city is doing much better economically thanks to its proximity to the Research Triangle and Fort Bragg. But if you do want to argue that Sanford spawned a racing career, go back to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2014 Tweet about his career starting here.
  • Radiator Springs was founded in 1909 by a steam car named Stanley. Lee County was formed in 1907, and Sanford was founded by a railroad engineer (think steam!) named C.O. Sanford. OK, so we’re stretching here.
  • Next week, we’ll prove to you how Pixar’s “Toy Story” was probably set in Broadway, N.C.