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Wrapped Up In Racing

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When the Verizon IndyCar Series sent a few of its drivers to New Orleans this past weekend to participate in one of that city's biggest Mardi Gras events, they didn't show up empty-handed. Instead, they represented with Hoosier hospitality and pride, arriving with a race car covered in images of masks, beads and an argyle pattern of Mardi Gras green, yellow and purple. But before the colorful street-legal race car could roll down St. Charles Street promoting the league's new race in Louisiana, Indy-based graphic designer Neal Cross had a lot of work to do.

An Alabama native now living in Indianapolis, Cross produces artwork for Panther Graphics. And his latest project happened to be a gigantic detailed decal of sorts. Cross says he's always been into design and been drawing ever since he can remember. He's been commissioned to create portraits, illustrations, paintings and sculpture. Although he doesn't hedge his words when it comes to animation -- his ultimate passion.

"I like to do a little bit of everything, but animation is really what I love." Cross features some of his work -- animated and still -- on a blog he started earlier this year. The work includes figure drawings, shark mobsters in bowler hats, well-known superheroes and villains and landscapes reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote's stomping grounds.

Neal Cross designs detailed "wraps" such as this one embellishing the IndyCar Series race car for this year's Mardi Gras parade.  - PHOTO BY PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Photo by Perry Reichanadter
  • Neal Cross designs detailed "wraps" such as this one embellishing the IndyCar Series race car for this year's Mardi Gras parade.

Cross is both self-taught and a graduate of the University of Alabama, where he studied graphic design. His first job in college was with a screen printing company that produced T-shirts, after which he worked for a car stereo company with a vinyl department. But then he began a unique occupation of creating vehicle wraps, and they were for clients as prominent as the National Guard. Before long, word spread of his talent, and by the end of 2011, he received an offer from Panther Graphics to move to Indianapolis and do their in-house graphics. Since then, he's produced designs for a number of projects, including banners, signs, racecars, media guides and hero cards -- custom-printed cards generally around 8" x 10" used by the racing industry to promote its professional drivers.

Currently, Cross has a number of projects on his plate. He's putting together artwork for a trailer for Menards hardware stores, a multi-wall wrap for a Greek restaurant soon to open, the design for Honda Civic pace cars for the IndyCar Series, and a FanZone booth for Honda that will be at various races. "Everything goes by in a blur, because I'm working on multiple projects," he says, which requires him to meticulously plan out his schedule as much as possible. "I'm always thinking about a project I'm working on and what's next."

Just last week, Cross finished working on the Mardi Gras design for the racecar that rolled along in the the Krewe of Bacchus' annual parade this past Sunday. The spectacle included IndyCar drivers, an alligator float, marching bands and actor John C. Reilly as the parade's 47th Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. (For a list of famous former royals, visit the Krewe'sKingpage.)

Even though the series of Fat Tuesday events haven't run their course, Cross' artwork-covered car has. So it's being returned back to Indy where it will remain decorated until it's needed for another event.

"The wrap is just a two-millimeter vinyl material with an adhesive back that comes on a roll," Cross explains. "We print directly onto it ... it comes off like one giant decal."

While the race car still sports its Mardi Gras look, visitors to the Indy Racing Experience might get the chance to ride in it as they take a 60-mph Victory Lap around the track.

Having his artwork displayed so prominently is exciting, but Cross admits that it can quickly become equally dispappointly in this industry. Two years ago, he helped work on the "Superman car," Panther Racing's National Guard IndyCar that helped promote the 2013 release of "Man of Steel." Cross got to redesign the car and says it was "really cool to be working on something popular." The car he had embellished did well in its tests before race day, but unfortunately crashed (along with all his artwork) just four laps into the race. "You would really pull for the team you were working for or with," Cross says, understandably upset at the memory.

As the Indy Racing League's racing seasonĀ  gets underway -- the first race takes place on March 29 -- Cross will likely only see his workload increase. The season, which will end right around Labor Day, used to be longer. As recently as 2011, it lasted eight months, but has been cut back so as not to conflict with the start of football season. Racing industry professionals noticed that television ratings would drop when the NFL kicked off its season, so racing events are "jam-packed into as few weeks as possible," says Sean Dunham, director of communications for Indy Racing Experience.

The future seems wide open for Cross, who has considered going to grad school. After years of back-to-back courses in high school and college, however, he decided to take a break. "I've probably used Photoshop and Illustrator every day for 15 years," he says, appreciating that his current position and close proximity to racing industry professionals lend to his continuing education. "I try to blend my artistic life with what I do at work," Cross says, proving his point with drawings on his blog of Clutch, an anthropomorphized panther wearing a racecar driver's fire suit. It's easy to imagine the character and his weekly adventures on a cartoon-friendly network, especially when drawn by an artist with firsthand knowledge of just how the racecar design should look.

For a peek at more of his work, visit Cross' blog.

Shayne Brennan poses with IndyCar drivers on the festive, finished vehicle during the Krewe of Bacchus Parade in New Orleans. - COURTESY OF CATHY KIGHTLINGER
  • Courtesy of Cathy Kightlinger
  • Shayne Brennan poses with IndyCar drivers on the festive, finished vehicle during the Krewe of Bacchus Parade in New Orleans.

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