Hollywood loves cars -- From ''Speed Racer'' to NASCAR, interest in motor sports surges among celebs

The fast lane just got faster. With no fewer than 10 auto-racing movies in development, Hollywood is adding its talent to the growing number of car-obsessed sports fans in the country. The projects include a Formula One film to be produced by Sylvester Stallone for Miramax; two separate biopics about the late Brazilian champion driver Ayrton Senna — one to be produced by Renny Harlin for New Line, which Tom Cruise has been mentioned for, the other by Warner Bros.; and a live-action version of Speed Racer, which after spending a few years in development hell has shifted into high gear at Warner, with Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess) set to direct.

Celeb interest in motor sports is also hitting the red line. Thrill seekers like Cruise, Charlie Sheen, and Jay Mohr have learned how to heel/toe at racing schools across the country. And every spring, the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, held in Long Beach, Calif., lures in a clutch of stars. ”Nothing compares to it,” says Cameron Diaz, who competed in her second Toyota race last month. ”This is the good life when you can go out and bump around in a car and not get hurt. It rocks.”

For the most part, Tinseltown’s interest in motor sports parallels NASCAR’s recent popularity surge in general. ”It’s all-American and has a [huge] following,” says James Woods, who hosted NASCAR’s 50th-anniversary gala, held in Hollywood May 1 (with Martin Sheen, James Garner, Oliver Stone, and Sharon Lawrence in attendance). ”It’s like soccer in Europe.” NASCAR Winston Cup series telecasts are now second only to the NFL in ESPN’s ratings, a fact not lost on Hollywood’s marketing gurus. DreamWorks plans to endorse drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart for a handful of races this season; their cars will bear graphics of characters from the studio’s upcoming feature Small Soldiers. It may be a smart strategy. The Cartoon Network-sponsored NASCAR team, led by driver Lake Speed, is in the top five in terms of merchandise sold trackside — even though Speed is ranked only 25th this season. That’s what you call winning by the numbers.