Dawn Welch, the Little Blue Porsche

Dawn Welch is like a finely tuned automobile. That’s not a cliche — it is quite literal. More precisely, she is a like a blue Porsche.

Welch is the personality behind Sally of Radiator Springs, who is the leading female in the hit animated feature “Cars,” by Pixar Entertainment and Disney Studios. The story follows the escapades of Lightning McQueen, a race car who gets sidetracked on the way to his big race and ends up in a small town on a forgotten stretch of Route 66. It is in this town, Radiator Springs, where Lightning meets Sally, whose ideologies and energy help carve an impression in him that alters the course of his life.

“The whole character of Sally is really me — the way she acts and everything,” Welch said.
In the movie, Sally is portrayed as a California lawyer who got a flat tire in Radiator Springs and, after becoming enchanted with the community, opens the Cozy Cone motel and makes the town her home. Welch said that story is a mutation of her own history.

“They (Pixar) changed it around a little. I worked on a cruise ship instead of a law firm and I opened a restaurant instead of the Cozy Cone, but what happened to Sally is what happened to me — except I got my flat tire in Stroud,” she said.

Welch, who grew up in Yukon, left Oklahoma after high school to travel abroad. Working on a cruise ship gave her an opportunity to share in the lives of countless people. As an avid storyteller and a natural socialite, Welch said the job complemented her. At the age of 23, however, she decided to serve people in a different way by opening a restaurant in Costa Rica. She went to Stroud to look at an old grill that was for sale at the Rock Cafe, which was, unknown to her, a landmark along historic Route 66. Charmed by the people and the atmosphere of the cafe, Welch wound up with not only the grill, but a lease to the building.

In the 13 years since that day, Welch has transformed from the young girl who knew no more about cooking than she did about Route 66 into a successful restaurateur, an exceptional cook, and a national spokeswoman for the famous east/west highway. As portrayed in the movie when Sally rallies the townspeople (er…townscars) together with her speech in the courtroom, Welch said she has been all over the country promoting Route 66 and rallying support for keeping it alive.

So when John Lasseter, the chief creative executive at Pixar (and now Disney), decided he wanted to make a movie about Route 66, the Rock Cafe became one of the planned stops on his 2001 tour. Welch said she prepared for his lunchtime arrival in hopes of enchanting him with the same atmosphere and nostalgia that had won her heart. Except Lasseter didn’t arrive until 9:30 p.m., more than nine hours after his expected arrival and a half hour after the restaurant had closed.

But the worst thing, said Welch, was that the sun had already set. Still in a state of recovery from the May 2001 tornado, Welch said her neon lights had not yet been repaired.

“And of course the first thing John Lasseter does when he jumps out of the car is say, ‘Can we see your neon sign? We’re so excited you have a neon sign!’” Welch said.

Welch, like her cartoon twin, felt saddened by the lack of neon. She assured Lasseter that the building would be “newly refurbished” in a few months. Welch now laughs aloud at the memory and tells how she, unwilling to let her guests go away disappointed, lined up the Pixar executives next to her worn sign while flipping the switch from on to off, hoping they might get a photo during the fraction of a second before the inevitable short in the sign occurred.

While the neon hysteria and the “newly refurbished” dialogue made it all the way to production, Welch said numerous other subtleties can be found throughout the film. Lasseter, besides ordering one of every item on the menu for he and his crew (even though the cooks had gone home for the evening), spent four hours visiting with Welch and absorbing the slew of stories she loved to tell.

Additionally, he and the crew read every page of 13 books kept on the shelf of the cafe in which travelers are encouraged to write a few words about their journeys and sign their names, Welch said. They looked at every picture, including one of her sporting a fake tattoo similar to the pinstripes on Sally. They asked numerous questions and some were answered with the friendly sassiness that helped shape Sally’s character, Welch said.

“They asked me, ‘Why do they call it the Rock Cafe?’ and I said, ‘Um, have you seen the building?’” Welch said with a laugh, gesturing toward the four rock walls of the structure. In the movie, Welch said that answer formed the basis for Sally’s response to Lightning when he comments on the significance of the cone-shaped motel.

The months and years following that night, Welch said Lasseter and numerous Pixar employees routinely showed back up at the Rock Cafe. Between cooking and washing dishes to keep the restaurant profitable, however, the significance of those visits failed to sink in, she said. Then, in January 2006, when national magazines and newspapers started asking to speak to her because John Lasseter had given them her number, Welch said she began to understand the influence she’d had on the film.

In May 2006, she found herself at the world premiere of the movie in North Carolina, being towed around by Lasseter and introduced to executives and actors as the real Sally of Radiator Springs.

“Owen Wilson was something else. I had to Sally him a little bit,” Welch said with a grin and a roll of her eyes. “John introduced me as the real Sally and he answered, ‘I didn’t know there was a real Sally, but I can see why you made her a Porsche.’”

Welch said her life hasn’t been the same since that day. She’s shared conversation with Lasseter, who Welch describes as a big 9-year old boy while the rest of the world describes him as the most renowned animator since Disney himself. She’s chatted with celebrities. She’ll be seen in the special features on the DVD release of the movie. She’s interviewed with Time Magazine and the New York Times. And she spends her days meeting and greeting people and children who have traveled from great distances to meet the real Sally.

Welch said she wouldn’t trade those experiences, even though she jokes that the publicity only means she has to cook more burgers and wash more dishes. But best of all, as someone who sees the Rock Cafe as her cruise ship and Route 66 as her ocean, she said it has provided her with more of the substance that’s kept her anchored in Stroud since the beginning — more great people and more great stories.

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