It's no joke: Health makes pit stop

Auto racing: With `Viagra' splashed across it, Jeff Fuller's Winston Cup car is drawing snickers, but it's part of a serious campaign to get men to have checkups.

February 15, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A few weeks before coming here, Winston Cup rookie driver Jeff Fuller stood beside his vibrant blue-and-white race car. It was the car that was attracting the attention, not the driver. Not then, anyway.

The car, the No. 27 Pontiac, had its sponsor's name sprawled across its hood. V-I-A-G-R-A. The jokes inevitably came.

"Jeff, if you should happen to win a race, do you get out of your car in Victory Lane and say, `I owe it all to Viagra?' "

Fuller didn't even crack a smile.

"I don't even have to mention their name," he said coolly, causing eyebrows to lift around him. "I've been ordered to be me. Pfizer is very serious about its product and about racing."

In Winston Cup stock car racing, mentioning sponsors has always been the name of the game. But the name Fuller and his crew chief Barry Dodson use most often is Pfizer, the manufacturer, and it is Pfizer that does seem very serious about its product.

Today, outside Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway, right next to the area known as Vendors Row, right where many fans can be guaranteed to see it, Pfizer will unveil its specially equipped mobile unit and the Men's Health Tune-Up for Life program.

The trailer, which will be at every Winston Cup race, has the capacity to screen up to 40,000 men during the season. A doctor and nurse will be on site to screen for common medical conditions such as high cholesterol, prostate problems, depression, hypertension and erectile dysfunction. The screening will take roughly five minutes.

Viagra, a drug used to treat men with erectile dysfunction, has come into prominence in the past few years, helped by a television commercial featuring former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole. And it remains in the public consciousness thanks to frequent jokes from the likes of talk show host Jay Leno.

But research has shown that the origin of most erectile dysfunction is physical, and may be the first sign of such underlying conditions as atheroclerosis, diabetes, kidney disease, severe depression and, in rare cases, thyroid problems.

Because ED is said to affect about half of all men 40 to 70, Pfizer has chosen Winston Cup racing as the perfect place to advertise its product.

Surveys show men make up 60 percent of the stock-car viewing audience of 100 million, and a large number are over age 40.

"We're a pharmaceutical company," said David Brinkley, the product manager for Viagra. "It's the job we're in. We have products to sell, but in this program we're not really interested in selling the product. We're drawing attention to men's health, getting guys to see doctors.

"Yes, we hear jokes about us. I've been on Viagra for four years. If I didn't have a sense of humor, I wouldn't be here. ED is stigmatized to begin with. One of our hopes is to normalize erectile dysfunction, to help people realize we don't have to lower our voices to talk about it. Hey, it's a common medical condition."

To that end, Pfizer has recruited drivers Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte to be part of a new Men's Health Panel.

"You know my interest in leading a healthy lifestyle," said Martin, a 31-time race winner who works out daily. "We want our fans to get out there and get screened and we'll be encouraging them to take advantage of this program. The best part is that it will allow for the screenings at no cost to fans."

Wallace, who is usually a cut-up and willing to crack a joke about almost anything, is enthusiastic about the panel, but is clear about distancing himself from Viagra.

"We don't have anything to do with [Viagra], whatsoever," Wallace said. "I don't need it or use it and I'm comfortable with my manhood. Our job is to create an awareness to get men to go to the doctor.

"It could save their lives. Do you know that over 52 percent of men have high cholesterol and don't know it? People are too busy. When they get home, the last thing they want to do is go to the doctor and the first thing they want to do is go to a race. Now, they can go to the race and go to the doctor."

Wallace said he has become much more self-aware since agreeing to be on the panel.

"When my father was 47, he developed an artery problem and he's been beating on me to go get checked," said Wallace, 43, who was Winston Cup champion in 1989. "But it wasn't until I became involved in this that I finally checked into a hospital for tests. I'm perfect. Guys who go for the men's health tests at the tracks and find out they're OK can come out and feel good about themselves, just like I do."

Viagra's Brinkley said Wallace is exactly right.

"Men will wash and wax their cars every week, but they won't go to a doctor until their leg is about to fall off," he said. "Women speak openly about health issues, do a better job of taking care of themselves and live five to six years longer than men do. Early intervention is the best way to improve men's health.

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