Turbo: Can This Little Guy Save IndyCar?

A superpowered snail—backed by one of the most successful animation studios in the world—is set to hook a new generation on the Indianapolis 500.

To this day, Randy Bernard isn’t sure who shared his phone number with Jeffrey Katzenberg. Bernard figures it was probably his good friend Bernie Taupin, the famed lyricist, but no worry. All that matters is that the CEO of DreamWorks Animation wanted to talk. Katzenberg called that day in December 2010 to invite Bernard to Los Angeles to discuss a movie DreamWorks planned to produce about a superpowered snail who fulfills his dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500. Bernard, then the CEO of IndyCar, responded, “When? I can be there tomorrow.”

A week later, Bernard was in California, taking a meeting. He signed a nondisclosure agreement and took home a script with his name plastered all over it to prevent unauthorized distribution.

“I was sitting in bed reading the script one night, and my wife walks in and says, ‘You do not have tears coming from your eyes.’ But it was great. I couldn’t put it down,” Bernard says, his enthusiasm not dampened by the fact that he had to resign from IndyCar last fall, ending his controversial two-and-a-half-year tenure. He has since become CEO of RFD-TV, a cable-TV and media company based in Omaha, Nebraska. “I’ve probably read 150 to 200 scripts in my life,” he continues, “and when I read this, I knew it was a winner. I’m a huge fan of Jeffrey Katzenberg. His record speaks for itself—what is he, 16-for-16 on movies?”

The film is called Turbo, and “I’ve never seen anything that has this potential for IndyCar or DreamWorks,” Bernard says. By potential for DreamWorks, he means a worldwide hit that yields nine figures or more in box-office receipts, as the Shrek franchise has. By potential for IndyCar, he means piggybacking on the popularity of a movie (with a marketing budget DreamWorks will peg only as multimillion-dollar) to hook a younger generation on motorsports. And by motorsports, he means the Indianapolis 500.

Everything came together as Bernard hoped. IndyCar contracted to allow DreamWorks to use the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar trademarks for an undisclosed amount, and to ensure that the movie would have the right look and let IndyCar shine. (“Which it does,” Bernard says.) This month, the publicity push for the July 19 theatrical release begins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where drivers who had a hand in the movie (Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Mario Andretti) will be preparing for the race, and voice talent like Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, and Snoop Lion (formerly known as Snoop Dogg) may pop in for appearances.

But movie stars aside, an important question remains: Will a snail, even a supersonic one, be powerful enough to reverse the aging of IndyCar’s fanbase?
David Soren had a snail infestation at his Los Angeles home. He also has a son, now 6, who’s been obsessed with cars and racing since before he could talk. Those two factors inspired the idea that the writer-director presented to DreamWorks in 2010: an animated movie that combines the fastest—the Indianapolis 500—with the slowest, a snail.

To pitch a movie in Hollywood, you need to be able to summarize the story in 25 words or less. Soren only needed nine: “Like The Fast and the Furious, but with snails.” That concept evolved once Soren figured out the characters and what exactly the garden snail, Theo—Turbo is his nickname—wanted to achieve. What was driving him, so to speak. Eventually, Soren developed Turbo’s dream into an obsession with racing and his hero, a fictional French racecar driver who’s a five-time Indy 500 champ. After a freak accident, Turbo experiences a Spider-Man moment: His DNA changes, gifting him with the superpower of speed. He ends up in Van Nuys, where he’s found by a taco-shop owner who decides to race him in the 500.

Soren has a long history with DreamWorks. He was recruited out of Toronto’s Sheridan College 16 years ago and started as a storyboard artist, working on Shrek and Chicken Run. He went on to be head of story for Shark Tale and directed some Madagascar holiday specials. But those, relatively speaking, were kids’ movies. To make Turbo, he wanted to create a more believable reality around what he acknowledges is an outlandish concept. Because really, how could a snail register to be in the Indianapolis 500? How would a snail even get to Indy? And even if he and his crew could get here, how does a snail race against cars?

In the process of shaping the story, the notion of partnering with IndyCar came up. What if they could have Turbo’s career come to life in a real, tangible place? That’s when Katzenberg approached Bernard.

“Like The Fast and the Furious, but with snails.”

Soren later walked Bernard and other IndyCar reps through the story, and “they could tell it’s not just a five-minute joke,” he recalls. “There really is a lot of heart, and it’s an earnest and comedic underdog story inspired by heart-tugging favorites like Rocky, Rudy, and Breaking Away.” (It’s just coincidence that two of the three movies Soren chose to mention are set in Indiana; he’s a Toronto native whose family drove Volvos.)

“To me, the ultimate in racing growing up was the Indianapolis 500,” Soren says. “Competing there would be a dream come true for any wannabe racer.”

When DreamWorks greenlighted Turbo, it had also announced plans to produce a movie called Me and My Shadow, a combination of hand-drawn two-dimensional animation and computer-generated 3-D. Animator David Burgess, who had worked in both formats (his credits include Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin for Disney and Monsters vs. Aliens for DreamWorks), figured he’d be spending the next two years of his life on Shadow. He discussed that possibility with his higher-ups, but he also met with Soren and Lisa Stewart, Turbo’s producer. They pitched him their story, and he wanted in.

“It had a purity and simplicity that I really loved,” says Burgess, who served as the HOCA (head of character animation), supervising around 40 animators. “The characters seemed really fascinating, and I was also really jazzed that we were going to set it in urban Los Angeles and then the real Indianapolis.”

Soren walked him through the plans and showed him some early character designs. The two decided the look of the film should be gritty—not an animated version of the locations, but stylized approximations of the actual places. That would be easy for the Southern California portion of the film, since the animators live and work in and around Redwood City and Glendale, where most of Turbo was produced. Indy would be a different story. That would require several visits to the city, trips to the 500 in 2011 and 2012, thousands of photographs, and detailed studies of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The DreamWorks crew wanted to see and show racing from the pits, the pagoda, everywhere.

“The scale of the place made a big impression on me,” Soren says. “It’s hard to really appreciate until you’ve set foot in the Speedway. When I came back from that first trip, I felt determined to try to capture that onscreen.”

Soren, Burgess, and the Turbo team wanted to be faithful to the sport. (As faithful as you can be when a snail is racing against 32 cars, anyway.) They needed someone who knew the course. So DreamWorks brought in three-time 500 winner Dario Franchitti (posing with Turbo at the top of this story) as a consultant. “Dario is a stickler for detail in his own career,” Soren says, “and he’s appreciative that we are as well—even though animation couldn’t be slower and a racecar driver couldn’t be faster.”

To create this world from scratch, the animators wanted Franchitti to share information about racing strategies. What would the cars be doing in the background in relation to what Turbo’s doing? What is the flow of the race? Why are cars positioned the way they are? They talked about the minutia of what the drivers are thinking. Emotionally what they’re going through. The g-force they’re dealing with.

Early on, they also talked about the obstacles the Turbo character would face while racing only an inch off the ground. Franchitti told them about marbles, the pieces of tire that fly off during a race, showing them footage and explaining that hitting marbles is “like hitting ice.”  

“One of the guys asks, ‘What does a marble look like?’” Franchitti recalls. “That’s a good question because, of course, there are going to be some points of view from Turbo. So a marble is going to appear rather large to a snail. The next thing, they called Firestone and said, ‘Can we have some marbles?’ So a bucket of marbles from Indianapolis arrived at DreamWorks.” That level of detail, he says, “showed me what these guys are all about.”

When you look at the serrations on the track in the film, Franchitti continues, they’re identical to the way the Speedway appears. When the characters walk into Gasoline Alley and go underneath that gantry, it’s just like the real version. “What they’ve been able to do is astounding,” he says. “And that’s besides the story, which is hilarious and good fun. But the actual job they’ve done at animating it, you’ll think you’re at the Speedway. It’s incredible.”

Creating the illusion of the Indianapolis 500 was an enormous technical challenge, animator Burgess says, especially when a snail has to navigate the track. In the story, when Turbo’s adrenaline kicks in, his shell powers up like an engine, its signature swirl glowing bright blue, and he rockets forward at up to 240 miles per hour—faster than last year’s 500 pole-winner, Ryan Briscoe. Still, “He’s this living, breathing creature in a world of 1,600-pound dinosaurs zooming all around him,” Soren says. The last thing they wanted to do was use the standard cartoon device of having a driver’s cheeks blow backward to suggest g-force.

Ultimately, Franchitti made four trips to Los Angeles to advise the filmmakers. He also provided some voice work—as did fellow drivers Will Power and Mario Andretti—although whether they will make it into the final version was up in the air at press time. But the level of detail impressed him, regardless: “They’re very much like a race team in that way.”

DreamWorks could animate the most realistic version ever of the 500 and the Speedway, but it takes the right actors to bring the characters and their surroundings to life. The Turbo team wanted to aim for a cast who would not only best fit the roles but would also play off of each other well. They started with Ryan Reynolds—who as Green Lantern learned a thing or two about dealing with superpowers—as Turbo, and then made a wish list from there.

Everyone said yes.

Paul Giamatti stars as Turbo’s brother, Chet, who gives Turbo grief over his interest in racing. “It’s left turn, left turn, left turn,” Chet tells him, echoing Soren’s own “naive impression” of racing before getting deep into this film.

Michael Peña (of The Shield) is Tito, who gets Turbo to Indianapolis. Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live) voices Guy Gagne, Turbo’s hero and inspiration. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover) are shopkeepers named Bobby and Kim-Ly, respectively. Turbo’s pit crew includes Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids) as Burn and Samuel L. Jackson as Whiplash. [Editor’s Note: Pena will serve as the honorary starter at the 97th running of the Indy 500.]

“We encouraged them to improvise, bring their own personality to it, and bring a ton of spontaneity to an otherwise unspontaneous, long process,” Soren says.

Snoop Lion took that direction to heart and turned in the performance that surprised Soren the most. He plays Smoove Move, a lanky, Zen-like, low-rider snail who is also a member of Turbo’s pit crew.

“He’s actually a really good actor,” Soren says, “and when he got into the recording studio, he completely embraced the character. I’m a Canadian Jew from Toronto. My vocabulary is not exactly the same as his, and he was bringing so much of what he does to the table, and it just made the character come to life. There are things he said I could have never dreamed up.”

Such as?

“I don’t even think I could translate. He’s got his own language, almost.”
Kasey Coler, vice president of marketing for IndyCar, thought Turbo would represent the series and the 500 well. As new scenes were produced, he was among those making sure IndyCar’s trademarks and the ways the cars were being presented were accurate. But he wondered how much of the movie would ultimately be about the 500. What he’s seen has him delighted.

“This movie, from start to finish, has a consistent theme about passion and perseverance and pushing toward the Indy 500 and what takes place there,” he says. “You walk away saying it’s not a small piece of what this movie’s about; it’s the backbone of the movie.”

The idea of putting the IndyCar brand and sport in front of a younger demographic, Coler says, represents an enormous opportunity to create a newer, larger generation of fans. In fact, the series had been looking for opportunities like Turbo, especially  since 2010, when Randy Bernard opened IndyCar Entertainment, a Los Angeles–based branch created to generate partnerships with the industry. The Santa Monica office managed to land the likes of Arie Luyendyk Jr. on The Bachelorette and Michael Andretti on The Celebrity Apprentice, but the venture, never profitable, shut its doors last December.

It seems almost absurd that IndyCar, a sport that reaches 100 million homes  worldwide, sees Turbo as an important piece of its future. But it does—and with reason. IndyCar draws an older demographic; only around 43 percent of its fans are younger than 45 years old. (In comparison, 47.5 percent of NASCAR’s fans are below that age, and supercross/motocross boasts 64 percent, according to data from Scarborough Sports Marketing.) “I think it will be the biggest thing for the sport in 30 years,” says Bernard.

Larry DeGaris, associate professor of marketing at the University of Indianapolis, calls it the “Days of Thunder effect,” referring to the movie that infused NASCAR with a lightning-in-a-bottle pop-culture awareness that broadened that series’s appeal in the early 1990s. You can argue that the Indy 500 is the pinnacle of racing in the United States, he says, but there are now more NASCAR fans than IndyCar fans. So a movie like Turbo potentially changes the conversation. As a cartoon, it appeals to kids. As a DreamWorks movie, it carries a presumed stamp of quality.

“But it’s not a panacea,” DeGaris says. “It’s not going to solve the problems, but it’s a piece in a bigger effort that needs to be developed. All sports have to be concerned about fan development and getting new fans in the pipeline. So certainly this is a really positive step, and I think it’s a good fit.”

In truth, DreamWorks Animation could use a win as well. CEO Katzenberg instituted layoffs in February after the poor performance of 2012’s Rise of the Guardians—the first financial disappointment in the studio’s history.

But the movie is only the beginning for IndyCar: In December, Netflix is going to turn Turbo into a series called Turbo: F.A.S.T. (Fast Action Stunt Team)—extending IndyCar’s reach. It will be the first series that Netflix, whose members streamed more than 2 billion hours of kids’ content in 2012, will release exclusively for a young audience. In announcing that decision in February, Netflix said it wanted to piggyback on a movie it expects to be an enormous hit.

The continuation of the franchise figures to help IndyCar. To make it work, Bernard says, IndyCar should get behind Turbo and push. “I don’t think it’s instantaneous growth” for IndyCar, he says. “It’s over the next year or two. And then it can continue. But in July, I think they’re going to be riding the back of a 10,000-pound gorilla.”

Dario Franchitti photo by Tony Valainis. All other photos courtesy DreamWorks.

This article appeared in the May 2013 issue.