Towards the start of his racing career, McQueen raced under sponsorship of Smell Swell Deodorizer. However, he was dropped from the label in favor of another young racer named Sammy Smelter, whose poor racing fit the image of Smell Swell better, according to the representative who fired McQueen.
Mack, who had overheard McQueen's termination, approached the young hotshot and offered to take him to Boston to meet for a job opportunity with Rust-eze, who had been looking, with little success, for a new spokescar. During their trip, McQueen and Mack became fast friends. Upon their arrival in Boston, Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze offered a sponsorship to McQueen. Though he was initially hesitant due to the sponsor's humiliating demeanor, McQueen agreed as long as Mack could become his transporter.
McQueen's racing abilities eventually garnered the attention of the Piston Cup Racing Series, and he became a rookie in the championship's 2005 season.
Lightning was seen racing the other racers and due to taking a risky move of not getting new tires he barely made a tie with The King and his arch-nemesis, Chick Hicks. As a result of a 3 way tie the Tie breaker race is scheduled to be held in California between the 3 leaders. He then heads to his sponsor Rust-eze which he hates the rusty old cars and then gets in his trailer to leave to a race to California.
On the way he pushed Mack to drive all night till he gets to California and the Delinquent Road Hazards separated him from Mack result he got lost in Route 66 with the local sheriff chasing him (Lightning mistook the sherif backfiring for shooting) till he destroyed the road in Radiator Springs by accident during a chase scene.
The next morning he woke up with a parking boot on his left tire and was taken to traffic court where at first the Judge ordered him to leave town but after Sally gives a speech about how important the road is Doc Hudson sentenced Lightning to community service. When Mater took the boot off he tries to escape Radiator springs but only to found out his gas was siphoned while he was passed out. Lightning then was forced to pull bessie until the road is fixed. When he hears on the radio about Chick Hicks has arrived in California he talks to Mater about when McQueen is done with the road he can go he rushed to get the road fixed quickly but only made it worst and was ordered to scrape it off and start over again. McQueen then told Doc that he is not a bulldozer and is a race car which Doc replies with having a one lap race around Willy's Butte. When Luigi says go Lightning speeds ahead only to mess up on a left turn and land into a cactus patch where Mater pulls him out with his tow cable and Lightning was forced to resume his work on the road.
The next day after making a very good road he asked the Sheriff if he can come down to Wily's Butte just to work on that left turn but he keeps messing up until Doc told him to turn right to go left in which he did but still messes up on the turn, landing in another cactus patch, the impact also causing a tall saguaro to fall on him, and Lightning screams in pain.
During his work on the road again Mater invites him to do tractor-tipping which involves scarring the tractors till they tipped over but when Lightning used his loud engine(Lightning does not have a horn) all the tractors tipped over and Frank overhears it and chases Lightning and Mater away from the Tractors. Sally even offers Lightning to stay at the Cozy Cone hotel instead of staying in the impound and when Lightning was dreaming of losing the race to Frank he woke up from his nightmare and really needs his daily gas ration from the Sheriff only for Doc to tell him to wait at Flo's gas station. When Lightning pushed a can into a Stay out building he went inside and learned Doc Hudson is a 3 time winner race car and tries to get Doc to show him his tricks in which he replies by telling him he already tried to. Lightning went to tell everyone about Doc's past career but nobody believes him and then Sally filled McQueens gas tank to full and ask him to take a drive with her in which he did or the Sheriff will chase him if he tries to escape. He visited Wheel Well Hotel and learned about the history of Radiator Springs and learned that Sally moved out of her rich but miserable life in LA to become the town attorney of Radiator Springs.
Lightning then sees Doc with his old racing tires and after seeing him drive he followed him back to the place where Lightning learned that he is a famous race car and later learned about Docs crash which puts him out of season. Lightning then realized he was being selfish and only cared about himself and after the road is finally finished he decided to help the town out including getting new tires from Luigi and Guido, a fresh new paint job frame Ramone, some organic homemade fuel from Fillmore and finally fixed Radiator Springs Neon.
After the media found him Sally thanks Lightning for being a help to the town and told him he should go and wishes him good luck in California. After getting in the truck Mack then transports McQueen to California for the Tie breaker race in which he learned the Twins are Chicks fans now and Lightning was starting to lose to the other racers until Doc Hudson and a couple residents of Radiator Springs became McQueens crew chief in which Lightning got his groove back to race. When Lightning was about to catch up to the other racers Chick sideswiped him but Lightning used Maters technique about driving backwards in which surprised everyone including Mater who told Chicks pit crew he taught him that. Then when Lightning was catching up to The King Chick flattened his tire only for Guido to do a very fast pit stop in which Lightning was able to get back in the race in no time. After Chick does some more dirty deeds including forcing McQueen off the road Lightning finally masters the Turn Right to go Left trick in which he made it in first place. After seeing Chick really injures The King he stopped before he reaches the finish line allowing Chick to win the piston cup. He then pushes The King to the finish line because he thinks the King should finish his last race and told him that Doc Hudson told Lightning that the Piston Cup is just an empty cup.
Because of McQueens good deed Dinoco offers Lightning their contract with him but Lightning turned it down and says that the Rust-eze gave him his big break and said there is one thing he wants with Dinoco which is put the town Radiator Springs on the map amd make the Helicopter give Mater a ride. Lightning McQueen then sets up his racing headquarters in the town and races Sally to Flo's. In the credits it is shown that while McQueen races Doc he claims he know all of Docs tricks but when Doc turns right and looks like he crashed into a cactus he jumped out of it and back on the race track replying "Not all my tricks rookie!". Another scene in the credits involves Lightning helping out the town by reopening Wheel Well Hotel and hanging out with his friends at a drive in theater which was playing Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks Inc and A Bugs life.
Cars Toons: Mater's Tall Tales
Lightning now serves as the deuteragonist in Mater's very own show.
The show begins with Mater telling Lightning what he used to be and did in the past. However, Lightning never believes Mater (as he wasn't there), and whenever he asks Mater if the stories really happened, Mater will always say, "Don't you remember? You was there, too!". Then, Mater continues the stories, including Lightning's sudden participation. The episodes end with Mater leaving, often followed by the characters and/or references from Mater's stories, implying that the stories might be real. Here, McQueen is often shown getting hurt or getting some other predicament (such as being chased by bulldozers and being trapped in a burning building) in some of Mater's stories, although not always.
Lightning returns in the second film but as the deuteragonist since Mater is the protagonist. He has won four piston cups and has settled into Radiator Springs as a resident.
This time around, Lightning is racing in the first ever World Grand Prix to determine who's the world's fastest car. But the road to the championship is filled with plenty of potholes, detours, and hilarious surprises.
After his long racing season, resulting him winning his fourth Piston Cup, Lightning returns home to Radiator Springs to enjoy the summer. All of his friends excitedly greet him, but none so more than Mater, eager to have a fun-filled summer with him. After an entire day involving riding on railway tracks with no tires and tipping over an enormous haul truck, Lightning politely tells Mater that he wants to enjoy the evening with his girlfriend Sally. However, Mater suddenly pretends to be a waiter at Wheel Well Motel as an excuse to hang out with his friends. After sending Mater off to get his usual drink (which Mater did not know), the couple notice a crowd gather inside the bar. Deciding to find out what's going on, they spot Francesco Bernoulli on TV, insulting both him and Mater over the PHONE. Lightning pulls Mater away from the phone before he could embarrass himself and anyone else further, making snug comebacks at Francesco that rile him and make him left the stage. Miles Axlerod suggests that the two racers settle their dispute in the World Grand Prix, a high profile, three-part exhibition race that Axlerod previously extended an invitation to Lighting. As Luigi, Guido, Sarge and Fillmore volunteer to fill in as his pit crew once more, Lightning gladly accepted the challenge. Sally then suggested bringing Mater along, as Lightning had never brought him to any of his races. Despite his reluctance, Lightning gives in to Sally's reasoning and invites Mater along.
During a race against several other competitors including an Italian car named Francesco Bernoulli, Lightning unexpectedly loses the race in Tokyo after Mater is unexpectedly mistaken for a spy and therefore abandoning his position as crew chief, unintentionally give him. McQueen gets mad at Mater and claims that he doesn't need or want his help anymore, causing the tow truck to feel dejected. The next morning, Lightning and the others discover a farewell note from Mater, apologizing for what he had done. Lightning then reassured himself and his friends that at least Mater will be safe back HOME. Little that he knew that Mater had been mistaken from a spy and was caught up in a plot involving Lemon cars and the race.
As Team Lightning McQueen arrive in Luigi and Guido's home town in Italy, a depressed Lightning began to feel guilty over his fight with Mater. Luigi's Uncle Topolino tells him that he has been too harsh on Mater and should accept him for who he is.
In Porto Corsa for the second race, Lightning manages to win one over on Francesco. However, they then spot most of the other racecars having suffered engine damage from the Allinol fuel in their tanks exploding. Though Axlerod is forced to suspend Allinol's use from the final race in London, Lightning announced that he would continue to use Allinol, stating that Fillmore said it was safe. Unknown to him, the Lemons decided to target and kill him during the final race to fully discredit Allinol. Lightning gets a vague hint of his impending death from one of the grunts Ivan who disappears into the crowd before he could question this.
Lightning later called Radiator Springs to talk to Mater, since he heard him before Ivan replaced him only to learn that he didn't return home. In response, Sally and the others joined him in London, Sheriff and Sarge departing their company to consult respectively with Scotland Yard and the British Military to find Mater. Lightning was then personally approached by Axlerod, who thanked him for giving Allinol another chance. When Sally reminded him that Mater would want him to race, Lightning resolved to race in his best friend's name.
In the middle of the race, Lightning spotted Mater in the pits and greeted him, only for the latter to desperately drive away from him. Lightning chases Mater through the streets, trying to apologize, not knowing that he had a bomb in his engine before he and Mater are propelled through the city with Mater's rocket.
After the travel, he learns of the situation and is shocked to meet as well as hear from Professor Z that a death ray was aimed at him. They learn the bomb was voice activated and can only be deactivated by the one who activated it in the first place. Lightning soon meets the lemons who were intent to see the bomb explode and he realizes they were the ones who wanted him dead. They confirm this statement but state it wasn't personal. After the radiator springs residents help them fight the villains, Mater soon realizes who the criminal mastermind behind the World Grand Prix is, but is worried that nobody will believe him. Lightning motivates Mater to do so and says just be himself as he learned Mater has no reason to change himself.
Thankful, Mater takes Lightning with him to the palace and he tells the Queen and everyone what he has learned and states Miles Axelrod is behind it. As the bomb counts down, Lightning watches as Mater corners Miles and forces him to deactivate the bomb until the latter complies exposing him as the criminal mastermind. For that, an amazed Lightning decides to bring Mater to all his races from now on.
After Mater is formally knighted by the Queen, everyone returns to Radiator Springs, where they receive a visit from Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell. Lightning then questioned why the Lemons' EMP camera ray didn't ignite the Allinol in his tank, to which the spycars had no answer. They all turn to Fillmore, who admitted that Sarge switched his Allinol with Fillmore's organic fuel, hence why Lightning didn't explode.
As all the WGP racers are invited for the Radiator Springs Grand Prix, Lightning and Francesco's rivalry had toned down, as they both agreed that the race is better off without cameras or press. As he turned to introduce the Italian to Sally, Francesco quickly addressed her and stated that Lightning is the luckiest car to have her as his girlfriend, before adding that he'll need luck to beat him. Lightning then sported off his new stickers saying, "Ka-Ciao Francesco", which amused his rival.
In the middle of the race, Mater joins the racers on his rocket jets and races Lightning for first place as the film ends.
The end credits show Lightning and Mater visiting many places around the world before returning home.
Cars Toons: Tales from Radiator Springs
In Hiccups, after having a drink at Flo's V8 Cafe, McQueen gets the hiccups, which all of the residents try to help cure them. They eventually go away after Sally kisses McQueen on the cheek.
In Spinning, he notices Guido having great skills with spinning a sign, and watches along with a crowd consisting of some visitors and most of the residents. After Guido catches the sign from the air on a set of tires, McQueen and the crowd congratulate him, before they drive away.
In The Radiator Springs 500½, he dresses up as Stanley for the town's annual "Stanley Days" celebration, planning to do a leisurely drive with the townsfolk, until a group of Baja racers led by Sandy Dunes arrive to challenge him to a race, which he gets customized for off-road racing. However, during the race, McQueen and the other racers take a wrong turn after Mater confused them with saying that left is right when he actually meant that it is correct. Following this, they go over bumpy hills and a cliff, drive through a cactus patch, get covered in soot from some tailpipes in a cavern, and come across a spooky forest, where they get frightened by all of the corpses scattered around, before arriving back in Radiator Springs.
McQueen will also return in the short To Protect and Serve, where Didi 05 and Mike 07 temporarily take over Sheriff's job.
Lightning returns in Cars 3 for the second time as the protagonist. He has struck up friendships with fellow racers Cal Weathers - who is now racing for Dinoco with his uncle Strip "The King" Weathers as his crew chief - and Bobby Swift. Tex Dinoco would still like McQueen to race for him, even courting him within earshot of Cal. During the season, a newcomer named Jackson Storm seemingly comes out of nowhere and wins. McQueen later congratulates him only for Storm to state it was an honor to "finally beat [him]", later telling his crew that he "struck a nerve", showing that he likes to use emotional manipulation to get into his opponents' heads. Also, Storm uses the latest technology to train, making him a highly-skilled precision racer.
The season goes on with Jackson continuing to rack up wins, and more advanced, rookie racers begin supplanting the older generation. Cal chooses to retire, telling McQueen how much he valued their friendship. Bobby is fired by his sponsor and replaced with Danny Swervez. On the next race, McQueen gets increasingly desperate to win, but fortunately Guido is still fast at pit stops and gets him back out, with his girlfriend Sally Carrera and best friend Mater cheering him on. Storm continues to mock him on the track, passing him. Swervez and Chase Racelott - another next-gen racer - also pass McQueen. Lightning pushes himself hard, but his right rear tire blows out and he suffers a major crash. Sally, Mater, Guido and Luigi go out to see if he's okay while emergency responders check on him.
Four months later, McQueen has recovered and is back in Radiator Springs. He's in Doc's old garage watching footage of the crash that ended his career. Sally then checks on him. Lightning doesn't want to end up like Doc who was forced to retire. Sally tells him not to fear failure, reminding him that he has a chance. She resorts to some reverse psychology to get him going. McQueen tells all his friends he intends to keep racing. After Ramone re-paints McQueen in his original racing color scheme, Mack takes him, Guido and Luigi to the new Rust-eze Racing Center. He's surprised to learn that Dusty and Rusty sold Rust-eze to billionaire Sterling, who appears to be a big fan. He has McQueen fitted with a new suit which tracks his speed and vital signs. Sterling shows off all the high-tech training equipment, including the most advanced simulator available.
McQueen is introduced to Cruz Ramirez, a friendly and enthusiastic trainer who first riles McQueen up by saying he's an imposter, but this was quickly shown as a motivational tactic. Cruz trains McQueen who's itching to try the simulator. Unfortunately, it goes badly when McQueen rams into various objects, catches on fire, flies off the restraints and crashes into the screen. Sterling then calls him into his office, showing him lots of merchandise with his likeness. McQueen realizes that Sterling doesn't want him racing anymore, so he makes a wager: if McQueen wins his next race, he retires whenever he wants; if not, he'll sell all the merchandise he can. McQueen takes Cruz with him to Fireball Beach to train.
Cruz will run alongside him using her digital assistant Hamilton to gauge his top speed, but will have to stay very close. This proves easier said than done since Cruz doesn't know how to race on sand. It takes until sunset to get it right. McQueen's top speed is gauged at 198 mph, which is still slower than Storm. He decides to head to Thunder Hollow which has a dirt track, but when Luigi gets worried about the press finding him there, Mack assures him he can give McQueen a disguise.
When they get there, McQueen is covered in mud to mask his appearance, going by the name Chester Whipplefilter. They realize too late that it's a Demolition Derby, and Cruz now has to take part too. The champion is a monster school bus named Miss Fritter. Both McQueen and Cruz barely avoid getting hit, but McQueen has to protect Cruz from Fritter. Cruz wins the derby, but accidentally trips a water truck over and inadvertently washes McQueen off, blowing his cover.
An angry McQueen lashes out at Cruz in Mack's trailer, complaining that he spent the entire day having to take care of her. He states that he has to win his next race to continue in the sport, saying she wouldn't understand since she's not a racer. Feeling hurt by McQueen, Cruz orders Mack to pull over and angrily snaps back at Lightning. She never wanted to be a trainer, but a racer like him. She got to her first race, but felt she didn't belong and left. Lightning admits - at Cruz's urging - that he never felt he didn't belong. She wishes she knew what that felt like. Cruz drives off on her own.
Mack spends the night sleeping under a bridge while McQueen watches TV. Footage of the demolition derby plays. Also, analyst Natalie Certain reports that Storm has set a new record for fastest lap, making him the heavy favorite at 95.2%. McQueen calls Mater who fortunately was still awake. Mater initially can't come up with good advice until McQueen says he wishes he could talk to Doc again. Mater makes an off-handed comment that the car who taught Doc would know more about racing than him. With that, McQueen catches up to Cruz and convinces her to come with him to Doc's hometown of Thomasville.
Once arriving, Lightning and Cruz get a look at the dirt track where Doc used to race. They meet Doc's mentor Smokey, who takes them to a bar with River Scott, Junior Johnson, and Louise Nash. McQueen wishes he could've seen Doc during his racing days when he was at his happiest. Smokey tells McQueen that he never heard from Doc after he moved to Radiator Springs, but one day he started getting letters from him. Smokey shows McQueen a wall with pictures of McQueen and Doc, revealing that coaching Lightning was the happiest time of his life. Smokey tells him he can't be faster than Storm, but he can be smarter than him, as evidenced by making it through the derby without a scratch.
Since McQueen missed the qualifiers, he'll have to start from behind and Jackson will start in front. Cruz has tape put on her to represent Storm as part of their training. She and McQueen will race on the speedway with the latter only having three laps to overtake her, but he can't. They use other techniques to train: dodging thrown bales of hay and other obstacles, maneuvering through a tractor stampede, and driving through a forest at night without their headlights on. The two get the hang of the exercises. While night driving, McQueen's suit gets torn off by the trees, giving him back his original racing colors.
During this, Lightning and Cruz watch old footage of Doc's races. They see that he used the drafting technique to gain speed and see him use the barricade to flip over another car who tried to ram him into the wall. On their final day of training, McQueen manages to pull ahead on the speedway, but Cruz still wins. They have to head to Florida for the race.
While Sheriff, Lizzie, and Red stayed behind, the rest of Radiator Springs arrived in Florida to cheer McQueen on, with Smokey acting as his crew chief. McQueen starts out last but gains ground. Sterling orders Cruz to leave. This doesn't sit well with McQueen, who wants her back. After a wreck occurs, Lightning makes the call that Cruz will finish the race for him. She is quickly prepared by Ramone, Guido and Luigi while Mater keeps Sterling away. With the #95, racing tires, and a spoiler, Cruz officially joins the race. Through Smokey, McQueen relays advice to her but takes over as her crew chief. Cruz puts all the training to great use and makes it near the top. While Storm is in first, he purposely falls back to second place as Cruz comes up. He resorts to psychological warfare against her but McQueen tells her Jackson sees her as a threat or he wouldn't be using such tactics.
The final lap comes. Cruz is right behind Jackson who can't shake her. Storm rams her into the wall but she uses Doc's flipping move to escape and take the lead. Cruz wins the race! The crowd goes nuts!
Everyone congratulates her on the win. Sterling then reverses fields and tries to convince Cruz to race for him, but she turns him down flat. Tex makes her an offer to be the next racer for Dinoco, which Cruz accepts, then asks to talk to Sterling. Both Lightning and Cruz are declared co-winners and the former decides to keep racing.
Back in Radiator Springs, Cruz now sports the Dinoco logo as well as the #51, carrying on Doc's legacy. Lightning has been painted the same blue shade as Doc and now brands himself as the "Fabulous Lightning McQueen". Rust-Eze has been bought by Tex so both Lightning and Cruz are now racing for him. In a way, Lightning has achieved an old dream of racing for Dinoco. With all their friends watching, the two have a race around Willy's Butte.