With film, NASCAR steers itself into Hollywood

July 30, 2006|By SUSAN DUNNE | SUSAN DUNNE,HARTFORD COURANT

NASCAR wants you to be a car-racing fan. Its executives want everybody in the country to be car-racing fans. And they've got a dedicated staff working very hard to try to make it happen.

For about six years, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Inc. has operated an office in Hollywood, the heart of the entertainment industry, to find ways to entice non-fans into fandom.

These pathways include books. TV shows. Music. Movies.

Opening nationwide Friday -- the same weekend as the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis -- is its highest-profile project yet. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was offered to the Sony film studio via a pithy six-word pitch: "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver."

Sony was sold and called NASCAR. NASCAR was sold. But the important thing to NASCAR is that the audience be sold.

"We are the only league to have an office in Hollywood, the purpose of which is to integrate the sport into pop culture and mainstream entertainment," said NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola. "We are doing this to create new fans."

NASCAR's indoctrination objective is borne out in interviews with its officials, which sound like boardroom pie-chart presentations aimed at "growing the company."

"My role at NASCAR is really to reach out to new fans and broaden the fan base overall," says Sarah Nettinga, director of film, television and music entertainment for NASCAR Digital Entertainment and an executive producer on the film. "We want the casual fans to turn into more regular fans. We want the people who don't know anything at all about us to become casual fans."

Giangola adds: "Seventy-five million people call themselves NASCAR fans. That leaves the rest who aren't."

That brand has proven to be lucrative. "Marketers consider NASCAR aficionados the most brand-loyal collection of fans in sports, and our survey echoes that," Sports Illustrated reported in a December 2003 poll of NASCAR fans. "We also found, when it comes to collectibles, they're second to none."

Ninety-seven percent of respondents in that poll said they had bought at least one piece of NASCAR-related merchandise. Most of that 97 percent bought a lot more, spending, on average, $559.13 annually. That's not counting the tickets to races or parking or concessions.

What this all boils down to is: NASCAR jumped on board this film not to make art or silly, crowd-pleasing escapism or even brainless, profitable drivel. To NASCAR, Talladega Nights is nothing less than a portal into the segment of your consciousness that controls your spending habits.

It's the next evolutionary step in the film-industry battle between art and commerce. It's embedded corporate propaganda, a marketing mind-game disguised as lighthearted summer entertainment, whose ultimate goal is to turn the audience into free-spending, brand-hungry consumers of all things NASCAR.

Even in these days of rampant commercial tie-ins and product placement, NASCAR's single-minded campaign to change audience members' lifestyles is extreme, an intrusion into the psyche. Unlike most film producers, who only want your money, NASCAR wants your heart, your soul and a lot more of your money.

The intrusion will succeed entirely if Talladega Nights convinces you that you're giving these things away of your own free will. Of course, you won't be; marketing exists to replace individual free will with collective obedience.

Producer Jimmy Miller believes the film will gain fans for NASCAR. "In focus groups after screenings of the film, we found that people were saying that they wanted to see a NASCAR race," Miller said. "I'm sure that was music to NASCAR's ears."

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, said this film will undoubtedly go a long way toward accomplishing NASCAR's goal, because Ferrell is a funny and popular star and because August is the least competitive summer month for movies. "It's great for NASCAR to have all this exposure in the movie, and it's great for Hollywood to have exposure to the NASCAR audience," he said. "If you can tap into that cross section, that is a very powerful audience. They have a lot of discretionary income."

This film is a crescendo that has been building for a long time. Since 2000, when NASCAR opened its Hollywood division, lesser, steppingstone inroads have been made in places outside of the traditional NASCAR marketing focus.

A search of "NASCAR" on Amazon.com turns up more than 1,000 book titles. While most of these are the sort of titles you'd find associated with any sport -- drivers' most memorable moments, record books, biographies of drivers, etc. -- others are unusual crossovers.

The sport, and the drivers, have an increasing presence in TV shows. Since 2000, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, David Stremme, Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson have popped up, respectively, as a host on Saturday Night Live, on 24, in the audience on American Idol, on The West Wing and on Las Vegas.

With Talladega Nights, NASCAR has what it has been seeking for years: a major feature film appealing to the masses and starring an established box-office draw. Most important, NASCAR controlled all depictions of the car-racing milieu.

The producers were happy to hand over the realism reins to NASCAR. "We showed them the script early and hoped they would come on board," writes producer Judd Apatow, in the production notes. "If they didn't, we would have had to come up with a new racing league."

Nettinga is convinced that this type of realism will bring in those new fans. So the film was shot at real tracks, with real cars, sponsored by real sponsors and with real audiences.

Nettinga doesn't see how it can fail. "This movie shows we can have fun with the sport. ... It's about the authenticity of the sport," she said.

Susan Dunne writes for the Hartford Courant.

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