'Novel' Tie-Ins Rev Up NASCAR's Image

Merlot, mousse and mushy novels might not be regulars at the racetrack, but that's all about to change.

NASCAR is known for its T-shirt and jeans style. But as the second most popular televised sport in America launches its 2006 season at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is looking to add a little panache to its traditionally blue-collar image.

"I think there's a concerted effort to make the spirit more hip and more appealing to the young. And when you look at the younger drivers, I think that does reflect their preferences," said Monte Dutton, a nationally syndicated NASCAR writer and author of "Haul A** and Turn Left: The Wit and Wisdom of NASCAR."

Product tie-ins have always been a big part of NASCAR culture. After all, each stock car is essentially a rolling billboard.

But with the league's fan base pushing past 75 million and drivers becoming household names, NASCAR is now reaching out to its new fans by associating itself with goods like wine, cologne and haircare products — not to mention romance novels.

For example, while NASCAR's beer-backed Busch Series probably isn't budging, superstar driver Jeff Gordon is hoping his fans will pop a cork along with their cold ones this season.

Last October, Napa Valley's August Briggs Winery released a 2004 Carneros Chardonnay under the "Jeff Gordon Collection" moniker. A 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are expected to follow later this year, with vintages issued twice a year.

RCR (Richard Childress Racing) team owner Richard Childress has also gotten into the wine game. His 45,000 square foot vineyard in North Carolina churns out around 30 regular wines as well as specialty vintages to commemorate big wins in the racing world.

Lucas Mast, 31, whose RPMblog chronicles NASCAR's intersection with pop culture, said he isn't surprised NASCAR stars are having no trouble finding new commercial outlets for their celebrity.

"The one thing that NASCAR continues to hold over other sports is the image of drivers as clean-cut, hard-working individuals that the average American can relate to," Mast said.

Of course, those clean-cut images have been getting some professional help from stylists who are becoming as essential as pit crew. Last January, Nextel Open 2005 winner Brian Vickers signed a deal with haircare company Garnier Fructis to hawk its products.

And if copping the perfect NASCAR coif isn't enough, men have been hoping to smell like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who serves as spokesman for cologne-maker Drakkar Noir. Gordon also has his own signature fragrance, Halston Z-14. And a new Elizabeth Arden scent, Daytona 500 Fragrance, was launched this month and will be introduced at Sunday's Daytona 500 race.

Mast said the new generation of fans will see drivers more like rock and movie stars than accessible everymen.

And the leap from poster boy to leading man isn't far behind. Former "Saturday Night Live" funnyman Will Ferrell has just finished filming the comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," in which he plays a NASCAR driver challenged for his speedway supremacy by a flamboyant French Formula One racer, played by "Da Ali G Show" actor Sacha Baron Cohen.

The film reportedly lampoons NASCAR's machismo commercialism with fictional driver sponsors like "Dr. Lane's Bath Salts for Menopause and Spider Bites" and "Julio's Thongs for Men."

But not everyone thinks NASCAR is a boys' club. After all, 40 percent of its fans are women.

In fact, the racing giant has inked a deal with the world's biggest publisher of romance novels to produce books with plot lines centered on NASCAR. Harlequin Enterprises will release "In the Groove," the first in the series, this month.

Written by seasoned romance writer Pamela Britton, who also counts "Red Hot Santa," "Enchanted by Your Kisses" and "Dangerous Curves" among her writing credits, "In the Groove" is a love story about a hard-luck woman who gets a job working for a famous racing superstar in a career slump.

Will phrases like, "Lance Cooper saw cleavage — that was it — a large valley of flesh where moments before there had only been open road," rev up female fans' engines? Britton thinks they will.

"I've been a NASCAR fan since the mid-'90s and I always wondered why there wasn't more of an effort to do things for women who love the sport," she said. "I've been amazed at how warmly I've been received by female racing fans."

Dutton said NASCAR has a big tent and is glad to welcome fans of all racing stripes, but also worries the new face of NASCAR may alienate purists in favor of fair-weather fans.

"There is some danger of the sport growing so fast that fans might get the perception that it has abandoned its roots and sold its soul," he said. "When this trendiness wears off — if it ever does — it's possible that the people that left may have been more loyal than the people who came later."

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