SCOTT SIMON, host:

You might have plans to take the kids to see "Cars 2" this weekend. But if you want to get a look at an old truck that inspired the Disney Pixar artists to create the character of Mater, you have to take a drive down Route 66, like reporter Missy Shelton of member station KSMU.

(Soundbite of a roadway)

MISSY SHELTON: Im headed down old Route 66, traveling from Joplin, Missouri to Galena, Kansas. Now, for most assignments I dont take my three-year-old son, Zeke, along with me. But for this story, hes the expert.

Mr. ZEKE SHELTON: Were going to see Mater.

SHELTON: Thats right, Mater. As in Tow Mater, the rusty tow truck who befriends the flashy race car Lightning McQueen. Mater brings lots of heart to the films and the occasional joke that goes right over your young kids head, like in this exchange with Lightning McQueen from the first "Cars" movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cars")

Mr. OWEN WILSON (Actor): (as Lightning McQueen): They say he was amazing. He won three Piston Cups."

LARRY THE CABLE GUY (Actor): (as Mater) He did what in his cup?

SHELTON: So we pull up to an old-timey gas station and diner called Four Women on the Route. And out front, there sits...

Mr. SHELTON: Mater. Get me out, please.

SHELTON: Is this the real Tow Mater?

Mr. SHELTON: Yeah.

SHELTON: How do you know?

Mr. SHELTON: 'Cause hes rusty.

SHELTON: Rusty.

Mr. SHELTON: Mom, take my picture by Mater, please.

SHELTON: We head over to the truck. Its been outfitted with the same big eyes that all the vehicles in the "Cars" movies have.

Melba Rigg, co-owner of Four Women on the Route, comes over to greet us and points out that while we say Tow Mater, she says Tow Tater.

Ms. MELBA RIGG (Co-Owner, Four Women on the Route): Disney asked us to rename it, 'cause of copyright reasons, which we kind of figured that. We held a contest. The little girl in Galena, she named him Tater. So we call our truck Tow Tater, the inspiration for Tow Mater.

SHELTON: She says thousands of people from all over the world visit her little corner of Route 66 every year. Im not sure I really believe her. Thousands of people from all over the world? And then four bikers pull up, including Zakan Youness.

Ms. RIGG: Hi.

Mr. ZAKAN YOUNESS: Hi.

Ms. RIGG: How you doing? Where you from?

Mr. YOUNESS: Morocco.

Ms. RIGG: Morocco? Cool. Come on in. Ive got free coffee, guys. Come on in.

Mr. YOUNESS: We see this character so we stop to visit him.

Ms. RIGG: That's the original Tow Mater out there. We do have proof that it is. So, go ahead and stretch your legs and Ill tell you a story. Okay?

Mr. YOUNESS: All right.

SHELTON: Just as the first "Cars" movie taught us, youll find tall tales, rusty old trucks, and some real characters when you veer off the Interstate and take a drive down Route 66.

For NPR News, Im Missy Shelton.

(Soundbite of song, "Route 66)

Mr. SHELTON: (Singing) Get your kicks on Route 66...

Mr. BRIAN SETZER (Musician-Singer): (Singing) Now you go through St. Louie, Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City is mighty pretty. You see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don't forget Wynona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino. Won't you get hip to this timely tip, when you make...

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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