Lightning McQueen, typically referred to by his surname McQueen, is an anthropomorphic stock car in the animated Pixar film Cars (2006), its sequels Cars 2 (2011), Cars 3 (2017), and TV shorts known as Cars Toons. The character is not named after actor and race driver Steve McQueen, but actually Pixar animator Glenn McQueen, who died in 2002. His design is inspired by a stock car and "a more curvaceous Le Mans endurance racer," with "some Lola and some Ford GT40." During the scene where he helps restore Radiator Springs to its 1950s heyday, he is painted much like a 1950s Chevrolet Corvette C1, once again hinting at his Corvette lineage. His number was originally set to be 57, Lasseter's birth year, but was changed to 95, the release year of Pixar's first film Toy Story.
During the initial research for the first film, John Lasseter met with General Motors designers to discuss the new Corvette design but subsequent changes to the storyline left both Lightning McQueen and rivals Chick Hicks (Cars) and Bobby Swift, Brick Yardley, Cal Weathers and Jackson Storm (Cars 3) as generic.
“He’s the new rookie, he’s kinda sexy, he’s fast, he’s different. So he’s invented. We took the best of our favourite things, from GT40s to Chargers… just sketching them out, we came up with what McQueen looks like.”— Bob Pauley, one of two Cars production designers
In order to create a cocky but likable character for McQueen, Pixar looked at sports figures like boxer Muhammad Ali, basketball player Charles Barkley, and football quarterback Joe Namath, as well as rap and rock singer Kid Rock.
“For the other race cars, we looked at how race cars drive. For McQueen, we looked at surfers and snowboarders and Michael Jordan, these truly great athletes and the beauty of how they move. You watch Jordan in his heyday against every other player, he’s playing a different game. We wanted to have that same type of feeling, so that when they’re talking about ‘the rookie sensation,’ you’re seeing that he is really gifted.”— James Ford Murphy, Cars directing animator.
The end result is a character which, despite the usually-meticulous approach to "truth to material" in which each car's animation is mechanically consistent with its respective model's capabilities, can occasionally bend the rules to move more like an athlete than a motorcar.
He is voiced by actor Owen Wilson in Cars, Cars 2, Cars 3, Mater and the Ghostlight, the Cars video game, the Cars Toon The Radiator Springs 500 ½, as well as Keith Ferguson in most of the Cars Toons, Cars Mater-National Championship, and Cars Race-O-Rama.
In the original film, McQueen is one of the three contestants in a Piston Cup tiebreaker race before an audience of "more than two hundred thousand cars" in Los Angeles, California. By the start of Cars 2, he has won four Piston Cup championships.
McQueen appears in Kinect Rush: A Disney/Pixar Adventure.
Lightning McQueen is a racer participating in the Piston Cup. McQueen is sponsored by Rust-eze Medicated Bumper Ointment, which uses the catchphrase, "With Just a Little Rust-eze, you can look like Lightning McQueen!" However, he secretly disdains Rust-eze, and hopes to be chosen for sponsorship by the much more glamorous and successful Dinoco oil company. He is certain Dinoco will offer to sponsor him if he wins the prized Piston Cup.
At the beginning of the film, McQueen is portrayed as being ungrateful, obnoxious, selfish, and sarcastic. It is noted that he previously fired three crew chiefs. During a pit stop, he foolishly refuses the advice of his pit crew to replace his tires because he wants to remain in the lead. As a result, both rear tires blow out on the last lap. He narrowly avoids losing the race when he sticks his tongue out, leading to a three-way tie with Strip "The King" Weathers and Chick Hicks. He subsequently insults his pit crew, leading them to furiously and suddenly resign.
Preparing to leave for California for a tie-breaker race, McQueen begins to realize he has no true friends. On route, he selfishly forces his big rig, Mack, to drive through the night, so they can reach California before their competitors. McQueen quickly falls asleep, therefore breaking his promise to stay awake with Mack. In turn, Mack becomes exhausted himself. After an unfortunate encounter with a quartet of tuner cars, McQueen becomes separated from Mack, and speeds through the night in a desperate search of Mack, only to end up lost in Radiator Springs, a forgotten town along U.S. Route 66, where he is soon arrested and impounded.
In Radiator Springs, McQueen awakens, and finds himself being taken to court for ruining the road of Radiator Springs. The local judge, Doc Hudson, orders McQueen to leave town immediately, but the other townsfolk, including its local attorney, Sally Carrera, vote to have McQueen repave the road as a show of power for community service, in which Doc agrees with. McQueen is then ordered to repave the road, but instead, he attempts to escape town. He is quickly recaptured and forced to repave the road in order to regain his freedom. He doesn't do it properly at first, but to take a break, he tries to accept help from Doc, but blows him off. In the process, McQueen learns about the history of Radiator Springs and begins to relate to its inhabitants. A tow truck named Mater befriends him, and he falls in love with Sally. He also reveals an unusual history about Doc, who is revealed to be a former Piston Cup champion, whose racing career ended after a serious crash. After repaving the road, and staying there, McQueen is free to leave Radiator Springs, and resume his journey to California. However, he selflessly delays his departure to show appreciation for his new friends by performing good deeds. During his time at Radiator Springs, McQueen's personality slowly begins to change. He begins to care about others rather than just himself and no longer disrespects them. He also isn't as cocky as he once was while on the race track.
During the tie-breaker race in California, McQueen is unable to stop thinking of Radiator Springs and his new friends, causing him to lose focus. Soon, he is surprised to see that Doc Hudson and some of his friends have followed him and taken on the role of his pit crew. Inspired by words of encouragement from Doc, McQueen races with renewed confidence. When Hicks attempts to knock him off course, he recovers by proudly performing moves he learned from Doc and Mater back in Radiator Springs.
During the final lap, the Piston Cup is clearly within McQueen's grasp. Hicks, realizing he is about to finish in last place, strikes Weathers from behind, sending him to a dangerous crash. On the track's Jumbotron, McQueen witnesses the crash behind him, which is reminiscent of the crash that ended Doc's career 52 years before. In order to help Weathers, McQueen stops suddenly before reaching the finish line, essentially forfeiting the win. McQueen is nonetheless praised for his selfless sportsmanship, so much so that Dinoco Race Team owner Tex offers to hire him to succeed Weathers. McQueen declines, realizing that he should stay with his Rust-eze sponsors in appreciation for managing to get him where he was. Tex respects his decision and instead offers to do him a favor. McQueen uses the favor to gain a ride on the Dinoco helicopter for Mater, fulfilling Mater's dream.
McQueen returns to Radiator Springs to establish his racing headquarters, putting the town back on the map and bringing success to all his friends. He resumes his relationship with Sally and becomes Hudson's pupil.
In Cars: The Video Game, written by Pixar and considered a continuation to the story started in the movie, McQueen finds himself at the start of the next Piston Cup season. With the help of the citizens of Radiator Springs, McQueen readies to start his quest for the Piston Cup, taking lessons in powersliding from Doc, boosting from Fillmore, and racing backwards from Mater. With his new skills, McQueen once again makes a championship run in the Piston Cup, much to the irritation of Chick Hicks.
Fearing his title is in jeopardy, Chick enlists the assistance of The Delinquent Road Hazards - DJ, Boost, Wingo, and Snot Rod — the same rowdy cars who detoured McQueen to Radiator Springs, to hijack McQueen's racing gear from Mack on Interstate 40. McQueen is able to retrieve his equipment and bring the delinquents to justice before winning the next race, which sends Chick into a frenzy. Lightning challenges Chick to a Grand Prix in Radiator Springs, followed by one more Piston Cup race in L.A.. McQueen wins these events, taking the Piston Cup in his sophomore season.
At the end, McQueen, Mater, and Sally decide to take a celebratory trip across the country. When asked if he brought his trophy, McQueen notes he did not, but left it in a good place, revealed to be at Doc Hudson's clinic next to the racing legend's own three Piston Cups.
Though McQueen is still sponsored by Rust-eze, players are able to unlock McQueen with a Dinoco paint job while playing as him in Story Mode, Arcade Mode, and VS. Mode.
Five years after the events of the first film, McQueen, now a four-time Piston Cup champion (2007-2011), returns to Radiator Springs after a successful racing season. He is pleased to renew his friendship with Mater. McQueen's respite is interrupted when he is recruited to participate in the first ever World Grand Prix, sponsored by former oil tycoon Miles Axelrod to promote his new biofuel, Allinol. McQueen initially declines but is publicly taunted by Formula One race car Francesco Bernoulli. Mater intervenes to defend McQueen, leading him to reconsider and join the race. Mater hopes to tag along on the tour and, despite concerns about Mater's meddling behavior, McQueen reluctantly agrees.
In Tokyo at a pre-race party, McQueen is embarrassed by Mater's antics and he begins to regret bringing him along. Soon after, Mater unwittingly gets caught up in a spy mission with Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell. This leads to more antics during the first race, which McQueen initially dominates. However, a miscommunication by Mater ultimately costs him the race. Upset, McQueen confronts Mater, and tells him that he doesn't need his help, and ends their friendship.
Feeling disappointed, Mater decides to head back home, leaving a heart-felt apology for McQueen, leaving McQueen feeling bad for being too harsh. On the way home, Mater ends up involved in the spy mission once again. Meanwhile, the World Grand Prix moves on to Italy, however, McQueen is too depressed to enjoy it since his argument with Mater. There, McQueen comes to understand even the best of friends will argue every now and then, and he is inspired to patch up his friendship with Mater.
McQueen wins the second race in Porto Corsa, Italy, though many cars end up damaged. Through his spy mission, Mater learns an unidentified criminal mastermind is sabotaging the cars. An unknowing public begins to question whether Allinol is to blame, since the fuel is one common thing being used by all of the cars. In response, Axelrod decides to remove Allinol from the final race, allowing the cars to choose their own fuel. McQueen elects to continue with Allinol based on advice from his friend and pit crew member Fillmore. (Unbeknownst to McQueen, his fuel had already been replaced with Fillmore's bio-fuel.) The mastermind orders Professor Zündapp (Professor Z) to seize the opportunity and have McQueen killed, so that Allinol will be blamed. Mater overhears the order and tries to warn McQueen, but is unable to do so before being captured and rendered unconscious.
During the third and final race in London, Mater escapes and resumes his attempt to warn McQueen. At McQueen's pit, Mater learns that the mastermind planted a bomb in his engine compartment while he was unconscious, and it will be detonated when McQueen comes near, killing them both. McQueen sees Mater and approaches him, hoping to deliver his apology. Mater speeds away in order to avoid killing McQueen. McQueen pursues him, thinking that Mater is fleeing out of guilt. Soon they are out of range of the detonator's remote control. After stopping, McQueen finally realizes the spy mission was real after Shiftwell and McMissile appear with a captured Zündapp. Zündapp reveals that only the mastermind can deactivate Mater's bomb. Mater alone pieces together the final clues and identifies the mastermind as Miles Axelrod. This makes sense to no one else until Mater explains that Axelrod wanted to give alternative energy a bad name, because he owns the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. Mater managed to prove this by personally forcing Axelrod to disarm the bomb in person, which made McQueen and the others realize that Axelrod was indeed the true mastermind after all.
Following the arrest of Axelrod and his cohorts, it was revealed that Allinol was actually gasoline engineered by Axelrod as part of his plan to discredit alternative energy just as Mater suspected, and that McQueen's Allinol supply was switched with Fillmore's organic fuel by Sarge, which would explain how McQueen managed to avoid being struck by the radiation. Being so amazed to see that Mater actually foiled a world criminal conspiracy with his own wits, McQueen happily declares that Mater can come to all races from now on if he likes, much to Mater's delight. McQueen also witnessed Mater's knighting by the Queen in honor for his actions.
Back in Radiator Springs, the competitors assemble in a show of sportsmanship for a race with nothing at stake. The film ends with McQueen taking first place during the Radiator Springs Grand Prix, joined by Mater thanks to new rocket boosters he was given by Finn and Holley.
McQueen's paint scheme is nearly the same as it was in the first movie (his large lightning bolt is repainted dark red, and a smaller bolt is threaded through his number, and has only three sponsor stickers on either side), though it is modified for the World Grand Prix with green-tinted flames on the end of his large bolt and a Piston Cup logo on the hood instead of his usual Rust-Eze sponsor. His reflective lightning decals are removed, he has a different spoiler, and his sticker headlights and taillights are replaced with actual working lights.
Six years after the events of the second film, the story starts out with McQueen, now a seven-time Piston Cup winner (2007-2014) and racing legend, racing in the Piston Cup while pitted against his old racing friends, Cal Weathers and Bobby Swift all who pull pranks on each other after each race. On the final lap of one race, Jackson Storm, a high-tech racer, appears out of nowhere on the track, roaring past McQueen to win. Storm continues to win race after race throughout the season, and many veteran racers are prompted to retire or are fired by their sponsors to make room for the next generation - including Cal and Bobby. During the final race of the season in Los Angeles, McQueen pushes himself too hard while trying to catch up to Storm, and sends himself into a dangerous crash. Sally, Mater, Sarge, Fillmore, Luigi and Guido are all shocked in horror to see McQueen's crash. The film's premise revolves around McQueen recovering from the crash that happened earlier and being trained by Cruz Ramirez, a technician and lifelong fan of McQueen, during the offseason in hopes of returning to his racing career. His main motivation to return to racing is to be able to enter the Florida 500 race and defeat Storm, after being given an ultimatum by new sponsor Sterling to permanently retire to a life as a paid spokesperson if he loses his next race. Sterling was planning for him to retire anyway so that he could make money out of McQueen's retirement merchandises, but he hid his nature and pretended to be a fan.
After several unsuccessful attempts at training, including damaging Sterling's simulator and participating in a demolition derby, McQueen decides to seek out Doc's old pit boss, Smokey, and eventually meets him at the Thomasville Motor Speedway in Doc's old hometown, in what appears to be the Great Smoky Mountains. Trained on smarts as well as speed, McQueen runs the first half of the Florida 500, with Smokey as his crew chief, before pulling out and giving Cruz a shot at stardom, with him as the crew chief. Cruz and McQueen share the victory due to Lightning starting the race, and ultimately a sponsorship under the merged Dinoco-Rust-Eze brand, thus he wins the bet with Sterling and decides to keep racing, and Cruz becomes his pupil. McQueen ends the film with a race with Cruz at Radiator Springs, now a mentor of young talent while running the occasional Piston Cup race.
He reverts to the body type he had back in the first film, but the paint job features a cross between the lightning bolts seen in the first film, and the flames seen in the second film, said that the bolts are solid colored instead of halftone, the Rust-Eze logos were enlarged, and has fewer sponsor stickers than he had in the first film. He also sports a second paint scheme prior to his crash (With a slightly desaturated red paintwork, a more modernized version of the Rust-Eze logo and different lightning bolts), a third "training" paint job in which he is darker red with metallic yellow accents, and a fourth "demolition derby" paint job in which he is all mud brown and numbered 15. At the end of the film, McQueen is decked in a blue "Fabulous Lightning McQueen" paint job reminiscent of Doc Hudson's. He also keeps his working lights.