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NASCAR and Harlequin: a union that makes hearts and engines race

The partnership, drawing on the hordes of female race car fans, weaves tales of love and lug nuts.

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Indeed, NASCAR has not only seen its female fan base increase 17 percent in the last three years, it also found that almost half of young new fans happen to be females. And their ardor for the sport is often stronger, apparently, than the longing of the boys.

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"There are fewer female fans, but female fans are more avid fans," says Larry DeGaris, director of the Academic Sports Marketing Program at the University of Indianapolis, who has studied NASCAR fans for the past three years. "For females, you're either on or off – you don't have the [equivalent of the] casual male fan who might simply supplement NASCAR with all the other sports he watches."

But more important for Harlequin, female fans who can tell you the difference between open-wheel and stock-car racing also tend to buy more books. And the romance genre remains one of the most important for publishers, accounting for almost 55 percent of mass-market paperbacks and $1.4 billion in sales in 2005. (And Harlequin gets around, publishing over 115 titles a month.)

"I think this might be seen as a curious melding of audiences," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. "But certainly the romance-of-the-road theme has long been a part of this genre, and this is where they come together.... And it's an interesting marriage, too, since a number of different types of women read romance, which could really benefit NASCAR."

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Surprisingly, with all the racing cars and hearts, and all the bumping and grinding on the track, these Harlequin romances really aren't very, well, racy. "The NASCAR novels are actually far more conservative than most [romances] out today," says Holden. "They've been very protective of their family-oriented image, so there's no sex in them." Authors are also asked to keep out violent crashes and drugs and alcohol.

Ms. Warren's "Speed Dating" helped kick off the NASCAR season in 2007 with a three-day speed-dating event before the Daytona 500. This novel featured a cameo by real-life driver Carl Edwards – the one who does back flips out of his car when he wins. Warren's second Harlequin-NASCAR novel, "Turn Two," will be released in November (and will again feature Mr. Edwards), and Britton's fourth, "Total Control," will be released next month.

For both Britton and Warren, the NASCAR logo has made an enormous difference in their sales. "Oh my goodness! It's been a very successful relationship," Britton says. "It just worked. There were skeptics at the beginning, but ... my agent said, 'You are a rock star!' when my royalties came in." Warren explains that whenever she goes to a book event, her fans ask more about her NASCAR books than the others.

But not all NASCAR fans are so enthusiastic about the lovey-dovey trend.

"I became a NASCAR fan at age 8 in 1961 in Boston," says Neil Gussman at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. "I read three-month-old race reports in the back of Hot Rod, Motor Trend, and Car Craft. I have been a fan of motorsports, both cars and motorcycles, partly because the danger is real. "Can NASCAR really be involved in fire-suit-ripping romance novels?" he asks. "Say it ain't so!"

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