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Pixar's John Lasseter Channels His Inner Child, Toying with the Mechanics of 'Cars 2'

John Lasseter plays with two of his favorite creations: Lightning McQueen and Mater, the heroes of Cars (2006) and its hotly anticipated sequel, due Friday.

He was born in Hollywood, the son of Jewell Mae, a high-school art teacher, and Paul Lasseter, a parts manager at Chevrolet dealership. He is an avid NASCAR fan, a personal friend of three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, and in his spare time, whenever that is, he likes to catch the races at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.

Not that John Lasseter, 54, the chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, has much free time to indulge hobbies. Then again, it’s good to be the king: While Lasseter admits that his professional duties are exhausting, he cleared enough room in his schedule to mix business with pleasure, grabbing the reins of Cars 2, the long-awaited sequel to Pixar’s 2006 hit, due Friday.

To Lasseter, who claims to read “every car magazine, every month,” sliding back into the director’s chair for the first time since the original “Cars” was an easy decision, but a logistical difficulty. Wearing so many hats is an everyday grind. But he credits the work with keeping him young, as the rest of his outfit will attest.

“I’m a big kid,” he says, playfully holding court at Pixar’s compound, where life-sized models of the studio’s best-known characters crowd the reception area and employees can frequently be found dancing and practicing yoga on the property’s sprawling lawn.

“I don’t have to grow up. I can wear Hawaiian shirts to work every day. And I get to make Cars 2, which is so different from the first movie, but it belongs to the same universe.”

Naturally, Lasseter didn’t pass up the opportunity to voice a character named in his honor: John Lessetire. (Gordon also lends his pipes to Jeff Gorvette.) But what intrigued the Pixar chief most about his latest challenge was not sharing the spotlight with Cars 2 stars Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer.

Instead, he speaks most excitedly about the advances that have revolutionized animation in the five years since the original’s release, and the globetrotting facilitated by his new movie’s exotic settings.

“When you watch Cars 2, you’ll feel like you’ve seen all of Tokyo, Paris and the Italian Riviera,” he says. “You go to London and drive all over London, fly all over London. It’s remarkable, the vast scale of this film.”

Still, Lasseter, who has always lived on the cutting edge and says he loves 3-D “probably more than any other director,” insists the technology is never the primary concern. “Everything you see has been thought of, designed, modeled, shaded – it’s a ton of work, but always in the name of story, because at Pixar, story is king.”