Why NASCAR has so many female hearts racing

Ernest Hemingway wrote that "there are only three real sports: mountain climbing, bullfighting, and automobile racing." But in a day when a sport isn't really a sport unless it's televised, that leaves only racing.

If mountain climbing and bullfighting are tough sells for American sports fans, at least Hemingway would be gratified to see folks snapping up stock car-racing tickets and paraphernalia the way people buy space heaters in Alaska.

Earlier this month, in the middle of this 10-month Nextel Cup season, a sellout crowd of 200,000 crammed the stands at Talladega, as is usually the case at the 35 other races.

Leading the charge - both through the turnstiles and with the TV clicker - is a fan subset that seems, well, counterintuitive for such a He-Man sport: women. An ESPN Sports poll shows that 42 percent of racing fans are now female, and more women watch NASCAR on network TV than watch Major League Baseball or the NFL, Nielsen Media Research found in 2003. In fact, women 18 to 34, many of whom attend the races with children in tow, are the fastest-growing segment of NASCAR's TV fans.

The rising female attraction is having an impact on the raceway in ways both subtle and overt - and is not happening by accident (though industry insiders are reluctant to admit it). Aggressive marketing is driving the fan explosion, and marketing often works well when the faces the public sees are movie-star handsome.

In a recent episode of "The West Wing," the president's wife is asked to put in an appearance at a NASCAR race. "Why would any woman attend a stock car race?" the first lady asks.

"Because of the drivers," replies an aide. "They're all hotties."

Take Gordon, the California wonder boy who is largely responsible for the new youth trend in racing and, for the second year in a row, the winner at Talladega. Or the winsome ways of veteran racer Kenny Wallace, who, like almost all of the drivers, has a personable demeanor that signals to fans "approachability."

Whereas it's a given that pro athletes are aloof, the NASCAR drivers at Talladega mixed with their public, not only signing cap brims and T-shirts but taking time out just to shoot the breeze. Wallace singled me out of a crowd because of my Western hat, shouting, "Who's this cowboy here?" Taking my questions, Wallace all but sat in my lap and ruffled my hair, and he charmed others as well with his folksy jokiness.

Why? Probably because race teams rely on corporate sponsorship in ways that other types of sports teams don't. Good drivers start young, but apparently they also learn to polish their social skills and impress the companies whose logos go on the cars they hope to drive.

If this kind of charm is helping to build a new feminine fan base, the change is not lost on corporate sponsors. While you still see endorsements from auto-parts companies - Wix Filters, Penske Shocks - one car at Talladega had "Vassarette/Sexy Fun Lingerie" emblazoned across its hood.

And while "Boudreaux's Butt Paste" has a decidedly down-market name, the product itself is an ointment for diaper rash, which is about as family-oriented as a product can get.

That family orientation has proven important for drawing - and keeping - female fans. Many attending the race at Talladega were there to meet family or friends, and had been doing so for years.

A recent book about NASCAR is one that's far more likely to sell with the heels-and-purse contingent. As women ages 18 to 34 comprise one of the largest groups of fiction readers, "St. Dale," a novel by Sharyn McCrumb, allows racing fans among them to indulge both of their guilty pleasures.

At Talladega they also had plenty of opportunity to boost consumer spending. Just outside the track proper, 50 or more trailer-sized booths were set up to offer everything from T-shirts, windbreakers, and bobble-head dolls to beverage coolers and high-end scanners that allow fans to listen in on drivers' conversations with their pit crews.

For the most part, it was the women who were throwing the plastic around, as husbands trailed behind lugging shopping bags and looking up plaintively every time a roar from the infield announced there'd been a spectacular occurrence on the track.

In the past decade, NASCAR has expanded its traditional Southern base, opening new tracks in Nevada, California, Kansas, and Illinois; the group has just announced that it bought land for a track on New York's Staten Island and intends to build one in Seattle as well.

Executives have also signed 10 Mexican drivers and are beginning to sponsor races south of the border.

Further transcending NASCAR's traditional niche, its drivers now star in a TV reality show, "NASCAR Drivers 360." Popular with the female audience, it starts its second season on FX Friday. Next year Will Ferrell could further entice female viewers with the planned summer flick "Talladega Nights."

Not every one of NASCAR's estimated 73 million fans is thrilled with the new direction the sport is taking. Those in its traditional base grumble about getting away from Southern roots and good-old-boy drivers. Look at the anger directed at Gordon, who was showered with Budweiser bottles at Talladega last year after a controversial win. (The crowd favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is sponsored by Bud.)

When it comes down to it, though, isn't auto racing just a bunch of cars going counterclockwise as fast as they can until someone crosses the finish line first? Well, yes. But as one character says to another in "St. Dale," you could also say that modern painting is just a matter of slapping oil on canvas.

One woman's high-speed traffic jam is another's work of art. And NASCAR knows it.

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