NASCAR steers to the mainstream as more spectators and TV viewers go along for the joyride

Surrounded by more than 180,000 cheering onlookers, Britney Spears is the picture of sexed-up teendom. Platinum hair blowing in the breeze, top two buttons of her skintight ensemble undone, she sticks out her tongue and bops her head to an imaginary beat. But, on this July 7 evening, Spears isn’t shaking it up at one of her concerts — she’s preparing to wrap her vocal chords around the most famous phrase in car racing. ”Gentlemen,” she shrieks to the crowd gathered to watch the Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, Fla., ”start…your…engines!”

A few years ago, this scene would have been hard to fathom. No self-respecting pop princess would have ever felt comfortable rubbing her exfoliated elbows with NASCAR’s traditional fans — Southern white males more likely to dig Lynyrd Skynyrd than ‘N Sync. But with racing permeating almost every aspect of pop culture, from film (The Fast and the Furious has grossed more than $101 million so far) to music (Mariah Carey grooves on a speedway in her ”Loverboy” video) to TV (7UP pitchman Orlando Jones drives a stock car in his latest spot, while ubiquitous racing star Jeff Gordon shills for Fritos), the 53-year-old NASCAR organization is hoping to lap up a piece of the action by courting younger, urban fans — including women — and satisfying their need for speed.

”[Racing] is an adrenaline fix,” says The Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker, 27, a self-described ”lead foot” who promptly bought himself an imported Nissan Skyline GTR after wrapping the film. ”It goes hand in hand with the extreme sports that people are doing nowadays.”

”There’s so much to appeal to young people,” says NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., 26. ”The sounds. The speed. The danger. Going to a race is like going to the biggest damn circus in the world or a rock & roll festival. It’s like sensory overload.”

”We were asking ourselves, What’s the next wrestling? And race-car driving is the next big thing,” adds VP of MTV news and documentaries Lauren Lazin, who executive-produced True Life: I Drive Race Cars and a Cribs special featuring Earnhardt. ”People think it’s sort of this racist Southern thing, but if they see how people in the sport are trying to change it, I think it will grow.”

It already has: According to Nielsen, NASCAR is the fastest-growing sport on television, drawing more viewers than basketball, baseball, and hockey combined last season. Ratings are up 21 percent in the top 10 U.S. markets — with cities like San Diego (up 72 percent) and Detroit (up 40 percent) posting huge increases in viewership. And according to NASCAR, nearly one third of American adults consider themselves fans. What’s more, NASCAR is no longer relying on its once-dominant beer-chugging, Confederate-flag-waving, trailer-hitching demo to rake in the bucks: Forty percent of NASCAR aficionados are women; high-income fans are flocking to the sport as well.

This is due, in part, to the expansion of the NASCAR circuit from its Southern base into new speedways in such metropolises as Chicago and Las Vegas. And that expansion has fueled the attention of TV execs. Spears’ appearance kicked off NASCAR’s affiliation with NBC — which had reason to pop champagne corks itself: The Pepsi 400 scored an impressive 6.1 rating, winning the night for the net. (NASCAR will air exclusively on NBC and TNT through December.) Where big TV audiences and high-income fans go, big corporations are sure to follow (like Kmart and Coca-Cola) — and in NASCAR’s case, for a very good reason: According to Performance Research prez Jed Pearsall, of all sports fans, NASCAR enthusiasts show the highest level of brand awareness and brand loyalty (fans are notorious for their devotion to the companies that sponsor their favorite drivers).

The Fast and the Furious
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 140 minutes
  • Rob Cohen