“Focus” light on IndyCar content, but oozes enough cool to enhance “cool factor”

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MILWAUKEE – One of the major projects for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marketing and PR departments this winter has been to push out a series of nationwide premieres of the Warner Bros. Pictures new movie “Focus,” starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

It’s been a big task to get the premieres launched in most of the IndyCar race markets – Indianapolis, Detroit and here in Milwaukee to name a few – not to mention the major premiere in Los Angeles last week.

While IndyCar is a part of the movie, it’s only a small part.

I had the opportunity to take in the premiere here Friday night at the Marcus Majestic Cinema with Jack Hawksworth, now driver of the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda for A.J. Foyt Racing, and two members of the IndyCar and Andretti Sports Marketing staff.

When the first IndyCar segment came up about 45 or 50 minutes into the movie, we all exchanged quizzical looks.

The standard turbocharged V6 engines that Chevrolet and Honda make were over-dubbed with portions of either V8 or V10 era Formula 1 engines, with no consistency.

The V6s were heard idling a bit later, but that was definitely a “secondary sound” compared to the screams of V8s and V10s you heard earlier.

Again, it would only be racing insiders/fans/geeks that would pick up on this, but it’s an important element to note.

The other racing element of the film is that Smith’s character, a veteran con man, is working his angle on what appears to be an Argentine businessman while also dealing with an Australian when at the track (NOLA Motorsports Park, where the IndyCar portions were filmed). We never got the South American character’s native country, but as that portion of the film is supposed to be taking place in Buenos Aires, you can make that deduction.

With that being said, you can look at the IndyCar portion of the film in a positive light, despite how brief it is (2 to 4 minutes, tops, in a roughly 1 hour, 45 minute film).

The two most recent, specific, live-action open-wheel racing-focused movies to hit the big screen are “Rush,” which came out in 2013 and “Driven,” which crashed into theaters in 2001. IndyCar also had its animated movie – “Turbo” – come out in 2013, which I won’t compare it to here because it isn’t a comparable example.

“Rush,” Ron Howard’s Hollywood version chronicling the 1976 Formula 1 title bout between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, was critically acclaimed, earned two Golden Globe nominations for best picture and Daniel Bruhl’s portrayal of Lauda.

“Driven”… the less said about it the better, other than to say it’s still the butt of jokes almost 15 years later.

Where “Focus” (something about racing being a part of one-word movie titles, it seems?) succeeds from a racing standpoint is that it makes racing – and in particular IndyCar racing – look cool.

Smith and Robbie have great chemistry throughout the film, even as it weaves through various twists and turns.

The South American team member Smith is dealing with gives off a vibe of arrogance, but the Australian individual he works with is depicted nicely – several Australians make up the IndyCar paddock and they’re some of the nicest (and quirkiest, in Will Power’s case) people you’ll run across at a race weekend.

The key, ultimately, is that while “Rush” and “Driven” were racing-focused films, “Focus” is meant for a wider audience. Smith is still a top flight star; Robbie’s star is clearly on the rise given her work here and in “The Wolf of Wall Street;” and in terms of a con man/action thriller with comedic moments sprinkled throughout, this is intended to draw in typical fans of that genre.

These are the kinds of things that expose IndyCar to a wider audience beyond the so-called “I-465 bubble” mentality, and the visibility is something that’s now there before the season gets going a month from now in St. Petersburg.

It’s good to see, and in a perfect world you’d like to see Smith or Robbie on the short list to be involved with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway later this year, perhaps driving the pace car.

If nothing else, it forces you to focus on IndyCar for the few moments it is on screen, when you’re not focusing on the cons going on the rest of the time.