It was at Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C., that Will Ferrell got some of his first race-fan feedback on Ricky Bobby, the son-of-the-South NASCAR driver whose dominance of the sport is threatened by the arrival of gay French Formula 1 star Jean Girard (Da Ali G Show's Sacha Baron Cohen). Filming a scene in which Ricky bolts from his No. 26 Wonder Bread Chevy while on fire, or so he thinks, Ferrell repeatedly stripped down to his underwear, ran around the track screaming ''Help me, Jesus! Help me, Jewish god! Help me, Tom Cruise!'' and still remembered to thank his sponsors. ''It was, like, a couple guys who had too many beers and were spending the night in the infield,'' Ferrell says, recalling his audience. ''One guy was giving me notes. He's like, 'I love the commitment. I love it. Keep it up.'''
Yes, the reception to Ferrell playing a NASCAR hero was always that welcoming. When he and his Anchorman partner Adam McKay asked to attend a Nextel Cup race in May 2004 to research their story, the sport and its drivers gave them an all-access pass and let them film during real races. ''We actually shot scenes in an empty pit stall that had cleared out after a crash,'' McKay says. ''It was like trying to do Tennessee Williams on the deck of an aircraft carrier.''
At least the temporary hearing loss served a higher purpose. ''In a weird way, this movie more accurately represents NASCAR than Days of Thunder,'' says John C. Reilly, who costars as Ferrell's best bud and, once upon a time, played a member of Thunder's pit crew. ''We had so much money for that movie that we staged almost everything. For this, we did our driver introductions in front of the actual Talladega crowd.''
Sony has already started its marketing engines. ''I thought I'd never say this: I'm gonna be grand marshal at two races,'' Ferrell announces. Will, we love the commitment. Keep it up.