NASCAR Driver Austin Dillon loses control of his car at high speed and the rear of his Chevy crashes into a cement barrier. He exits the car slowly as a policewoman yells at him to get down, and he complies, falling on his knees.
Then, the car blows up.
Dillon waits a few beats and then stands, exhales, and smiles a grin mixed with relief, joy, and adrenaline as the director shouts, “Cut!” and the crew cheers.
Dillon has just been initiated into the world of Hollywood, as this scene is for his upcoming appearance in the FOX series “Rosewood.” And he is pumped up even though the scene was shot in a decidedly unglamorous locale -- an abandoned shopping mall in Hawthorne, California, just south of Los Angeles.
Asked if he was nervous, Dillon told Fox News with a grin, “Now that we’ve blown up something, I’m ready to go. The blowing up the car part was probably the easiest for me. It got me warmed up. I’m more worried about (delivering) the lines.”
That’s the sort of laid-back bravado and personality that NASCAR is banking on to translate onscreen as the sport revs up efforts to drive the sport further into pop culture and mainstream media. It’s part of an effort to win over new fans and expand the fanbase as the sport tries to juice ratings and attendance levels back up to their pre-recession levels.
Burning Up the Sunset Strip
“We’re more aggressive than we’ve ever been in leveraging entertainment," says Zane Stoddard, NASCAR VP of entertainment marketing and content development, who heads the racing body’s Los Angeles office.
In 2016, NASCAR says integrations similar to Dillon’s cameo generated 277 million viewers of TV and digital projects, 447 million social media followers posted to, 110 TV show appearances by drivers, and 569 media appearances.
In other words, it’s a busier slate than the patchwork of color schemes and brand logos on NASCAR race cars, and they’re not coasting this year. Drivers are featured in two summer film releases: “Cars 3” from Disney-Pixar and “Logan Lucky” directed by Academy Award-winner Steven Soderbergh. Stoddard has an executive producer credit for “Logan Lucky” as it’s an original concept that NASCAR helped create.
“We’re responsible for developing these projects (but) we don’t finance these projects,” explains Stoddard. “Our skin is our IP (intellectual property) and our assets — our fanbase and drivers, tracks, and races.”
The integrations go beyond creating content or piggybacking on other people's projects. Stoddard and other NASCAR execs and drivers mingled with Hollywood stars and decision makers last week ahead of the circuit’s lone Southern California stop in Fontana, 50 miles east of LA.
Some 50 celebrities watched the race from NASCAR’s suite and "The Fate of the Furious" actor Scott Eastwood was the grand marshall giving the call for "drivers to start their engines" for the Auto Club 400.
That race was won by 24-year-old Kyle Larson. He’s one of the young drivers the sport is pinning its hopes on for greater growth.
“We have a group of young drivers that we think are particularly interesting,” explains Stoddard. “The opportunity for us is to find roles where they’re not playing race car drivers. It gives us a chance to show off their personalities and it’s just a better story for these guys to in spots where people don’t expect, it’s just more fun.”
NASCAR’s driver marketing services manages the brands of the drivers and works to find and sometimes flesh out roles for them.
There is obvious synergy with "Rosewood” on FOX since the network broadcasts NASCAR races, but Stoddard notes: “we are agnostic and work with every network. I’m not sure there’s a major cable or broadcast network that we have not worked with…In the seven years I’ve been here we’ve done somewhere around two billion media impressions.”
And while Dillon says he can’t wait to get the number 3 car back to Victory Lane, the 26-year-old is clearly enjoying his new role as NASCAR evangelist. “I think we have a really good future ahead of us.”
Creating the Need for Speed
The North Carolina native may have been born the same year that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman helped drive NASCAR beyond its Southern roots in the racing cult classic “Days of Thunder,” but he relates to it and realizes the importance of media in spreading the word.
“I love that movie! It’s one of the best ever. All the drivers know all the lines,” Dillon says smiling. “A lot of kids watch TV, but they’re not always watching racing. So, to get some of that audience to relate to something, we’re trying to do a lot of that and NASCAR’s doing a good job of showing them how much fun we have.”
If Dillon’s first few days on the job are any indication, he’s creating interest one fan at a time and he may just get an encore performance after his turn as a bad guy whose escape is thwarted by the cops and crashing his car.
“Austin is pretty special, he has a presence and energy of someone who belongs on set,” “Rosewood” co-star Jaina Lee Ortiz told Fox News just before the car explosion, adding, “We get to infuse elements that we haven’t showcased in our show. The finale is action-packed—reckless driving, and he’ll be involved with that, of course.”
Ortiz adds, ”His team invited me to a race, so I’m excited to go to my first NASCAR race.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the episode’s veteran director, Deran Sarafian. “He’s terrific…now that I’ve met Austin and worked with him I’m going to take my kids to a race.”
For shows such as “Rosewood,” the integration may have synergy since they have a similar audience to NASCAR.
Ortiz said, “Absolutely, I think our show fits in that lane. The awareness and traffic coming in both directions will be a good benefit.”