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June 23, 2017 04:55 PM

Pixar’s latest Cars movie is paying tribute to a racing pioneer.

The third installment of the Cars franchise takes on special meaning as it honors trailblazers from the history of racing. One of the characters is River Scott, inspired by the first black NASCAR driver, Wendell Scott.

Isiah Whitlock Jr., best known for his gritty portrayal of a corrupt senator on The Wire, opens up to PEOPLE in the latest issues about giving Scott a platform.

“He has sort of been forgotten. I don’t think people really understood what this man had gone through or his determination and grit and perseverance and how he was able to overcome a lot of the obstacles,” Whitlock, 62, says. “I hope that through this, more people will look into his life and realize that he was a great racer, one of the pioneers of NASCAR, and they will be able to see more about his life.”

New Cars character River Scott

As much of an honor as it was to portray a character inspired by Scott, Whitlock admits there were some challenges to researching the part. He had to do a deep dive into Scott’s life during a painful time in American history.

“Playing River took a lot of study on Wendell, which in many ways is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as an actor because a lot of it was painful, studying about a man who was in an all-white sport in the Jim Crow south,” Whitlock admits. “So I took a little bit of that, try to find some humor with the character while still playing attention to a lot of the emotion with the character.”

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The veteran actor especially wanted to make sure the character was still funny, as he didn’t want his arc to be solely about his trailblazing status. He just wanted people to see what Scott was able to achieve without much support, regardless of the roadblocks ahead of him.

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But as much as he was inspired by Scott’s story, Whitlock says the racing life isn’t necessarily for him.

“I don’t think I will ever look at race-car driving the same way again. I thought it was just people going around in circles on a track — I had no idea the amount of work and what went into it,” Whitlock says. But, he adds, “I’m a very slow driver — I think it’s gonna remain that way.”

Cars 3 is out now.

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