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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

He was fast, as fast as she had ever seen, but he was dangerous. Already adored by millions – most in beat-up baseball caps, good ole boys watching him race his product-decaled frame of steel – he seemed mysterious and aloof to her, a man from a world on the other side of the grandstand.

She was sweet and sentimental, but adored by millions, too. Her words enthralled housewives and hormone-addled teens, bringing rapturous stories to the lovelorn, the lonely, and those with a left-seat longing.

It's a tale of love and lug nuts, a story of revved-up engines and crossed-laced corsets (OK, maybe Daisy Dukes and cotton tanks), and it's been almost a year and a half since NASCAR and the book publisher Harlequin hooked up to create a wheel-spinning series of romance novels. In the past decade, as NASCAR's popularity has grown throughout the country, it's found that 30 million of its estimated 75 million fans are women, and so it's been looking for new – and novel – ways to market the sport to those who often ride shotgun.

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So when Harlequin wooed, NASCAR fell. The burgeoning sport, now the second-most watched behind football, sealed the romance with a licensing agreement. Their first year together produced three bouncing and successful novels, so they planned 16 more for 2007.

"Of course NASCAR and Harlequin should be together," says Stacy Holden, a Massachusetts native and professor of Middle Eastern history at Purdue University in Indiana. "It's just perfect. I have four of them spread out on my bed right now. And I can give you – if you want to know the top 12 divers in the Nextel Cup point standings – I can give you everything. And Tony Stewart is my driver – he has a New York attitude."

Ms. Holden admits her love for romance novels has been a guilty pleasure among the hundreds of academic tomes she must peruse each year, and that she's the only PhD she knows who openly cheers for NASCAR. For her, it's the drama of the incongruous match, the fun of seeing the lofty fall for the lowly, and even the chance to see Fabio in a fire suit, that proves so irresistible.

"In romance ... we try to find a hero that challenges our heroine," says bestselling Harlequin author Nancy Warren, who started the engines of this year's series with "Speed Dating" in February. "We find people who are opposites, and who make the most interesting stories."

The initial matchmaker for the cobranded novels was Pamela Britton, a successful romance novelist who has also worked as an official scorer for NASCAR truck races. Having already written a stock-car-themed romance for Harlequin, she thought having the NASCAR logo on the book cover would bring the pleasures of romance novels to a whole new audience. She also believed the typical Harlequin reader would learn to enjoy the thrill of the NASCAR chase.

"NASCAR drivers are heroes that are larger-than-life, which is traditionally what a Harlequin romance-novel hero is," says Ms. Britton, who wrote "In the Groove." "So it meshes perfectly. You have these guys that live life on the edge – which is very attractive to women. But it actually took about a year to hear back from NASCAR, so we kept knocking on the door, and they called us up and said, 'Yep, we want to talk about it.' "

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.

"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."

• • •

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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