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By Scott Bowles
USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES - As it is prone to do,The Fast and the Furiousfranchise is revving up for another neck-and-neck race.

But this time, the competition comes from other flicks.

Fast & Furious 6, the latest installment of a series that has become one of America's least likely and most powerful, gears up for its first Memorial Day-weekend opening, Hollywood's most important outside of Thanksgiving.

The high-profile release date illustrates the growing clout of a petrol-crazed franchise that has done $1.6 billion worldwide and $599 million since the originalThe Fast and the Furiousopened in 2001, according to Box Office Mojo.

Of course, with big bucks come big expectations, andFuriouswill see its toughest competition in 12 years when it squares off againstThe Hangover Part IIIand the animated fantasyEpic. Analysts expect a nip-and-tuck sprint withHangoverfor weekend supremacy, and both films have at least $200 million in box office earnings in their crosshairs.

Neal Moritz, producer of the half-dozenF&Fmovies, concedes he never expected to be working on a strategy for a fifth sequel when the original hit screens in June 2001. "We had a modestly budgeted movie that didn't need to make a lot of money to be profitable," he says. "No one expected how much people would connect with the characters, the cars and the action."

Indeed, since that $38 million debut, the series has averaged $140 million per film. "To get this weekend, you have to earn it," says director Justin Lin. This is something we really worked hard for, to grow as a franchise. I'm proud of that."

So is star Paul Walker. He says the film was intended to capture the street-racing life in Los Angeles but became a multi-ethnic juggernaut that resonates with audiences worldwide.

"I thought this was just going to be a fun reason to chase bad guys and shoot at them," Walker says. "And if the setting had been in middle America, I'm not sure this would have worked. But we connected with a culture."

This time around, the gang joins forces with law enforcement (led by Dwayne Johnson) to take down an international criminal versed in vehicular warfare. The film continues the franchise's focus on family by bringing back Letty Ortiz, played by Michelle Rodriguez, who appeared to be murdered in the fourth installment.

"So many girls relate to Letty, so I was happy to come back," Rodriguez says. "You don't get to work on many films that care about people on the outskirts of society."

Let alone six films, says star and producer Vin Diesel,who says the franchise's world view has changed since he first came aboard.

"The goal now is different," he says. "It's no longer about doing one film that takes its cues fromRebel Without a CauseorThe Wild Ones. Now we're playing out a saga, still kept together by family."

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