When the United States Tennis Association wanted to stir a racket with a new promotional campaign this spring, it turned to stock-car driver Jeff Gordon. Mr. Gordon, attired in his familiar fireproof race suit, brandishes a racket in the year-long, national advertising campaign aimed at heightening interest in recreational tennis.
Such notions would have been unthinkable as recently as a decade ago. Now, though, everyone, from the patrician tennis set to the pop- culture mavens at "Saturday Night Live," wants a piece of NASCAR. Long dismissed outside the South as the Land of Bubba, stock-car racing now carries mainstream cachet.
Which explains why Gordon was tapped to host "SNL" last year - and why he's become a staple on other talk shows.
"Coming into [the sport], I didn't expect a lot of things that have happened," says Gordon, a handsome multimillionaire who also happens to be a four-time NASCAR season champion. "I never expected to be cohost on TV shows like '[Live With] Regis and Kelly' or 'Saturday Night Live.' I never dreamed of commercials on television and the number of fans that follow our sport."
Those loyal fans are eager to snap up whatever Gordon may be pitching. It's also a familiar scene for on-track rivals such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Ryan Newman - all of whom are also lining up atypical endorsements (beyond the sport's auto-related staples) and appearances in TV shows and movies.
Last fall, VH1 aired a fawning, all- access special centered on Mr. Earnhardt, being whisked by limousines and private jets from one autograph appearance to another across the country. He found time during the show to hang out with his rock-star pals from 3 Doors Down, as well. Another rocker, Sheryl Crow, included Earnhardt in one of her music videos.
Industry experts say the newfound acceptance isn't a sudden shift. Instead, it's the result of a mammoth push during the past decade to put NASCAR squarely in the American mainstream.
And just what has NASCAR got under the hood? An audience, according to internal research, of 75 million fans, 40 percent of them female, with almost half earning $50,000 or more annually. The top-tier Nextel Cup series, racing's big leagues, trails only the National Football League when it comes to TV ratings, considered the lifeblood of any league.
Three years ago, the death of its biggest star, seven-time season champion Dale Earnhardt, the father of Earnhardt Jr., generated enormous awareness at the same time a new TV deal with Fox and NBC Sports began.
"You put the increased visibility with the added sophistication of the drivers and the companies today and this is what you get," says Tim Frost, president of Frost Motorsports, a consulting firm in Chicago.
NASCAR and its fans have always been comfortable with the sport's close link between corporate benefactors and the drivers. Each car carries a raft of sponsor stickers, with many corporate backers spending millions of dollars to keep the drivers and their pit crews awash in gasoline, tires, and engines. The largest sponsorships run as high as $20 million a year. One glance at the logos splashed across the hoods - Home Depot, M&M's, and Budweiser among them - reveals a who's who of corporate America.
Stock-car racing emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a form of popular entertainment derived from the revved-up moonshine haulers (thus "stock cars") evading frustrated lawmen across the rural Southeast. As the sport grew, auto manufacturers began supplying specific makes and models to early stars such as Junior Johnson. The automakers' motto became, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," linking weekend race winners with weekday dealership decisions on the part of car buyers.
Spark plugs were one thing, but Viagra (pitched by veteran driver Mark Martin in a series of TV ads) is another. Corporations salivate over the loyalty of NASCAR fans, perhaps the only sports enthusiasts who celebrate the blending of competition with brazen commerce.
"They are very brand loyal," says Eric Kraus, a spokesman at Gillette, which launched a $20 million NASCAR-themed campaign this year. The company enlisted six stock-car drivers, deemed "Young Guns," for a promotion touting its razors, toothbrushes, and batteries. Mr. Kraus credits stock-car fans' penchant for buying the products touted by their favorite drivers as the basis for the NASCAR push.
Even the movie theater is no longer safe. The Coca-Cola Co., with its so-called Racing Family of NASCAR drivers, has begun showing humorous 60-second spots featuring drivers such as Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip at thousands of theaters across the country.
They also star in movies. An IMAX movie released this year, detailing the sights and sounds of cars whizzing by at 180 miles an hour, immediately became one of the most popular IMAX movies ever.
"I call it a transference of equity," says Geoff Smith, president at Roush Racing, whose drivers include Mr. Martin and defending series champion Matt Kenseth. "All of these companies want to tap into the passionate following these drivers cultivate every Sunday."
Perhaps the best example of how far NASCAR has come from its humble beginnings is illustrated by what it won't do. Last month, a race car sponsored by website redneckjunk.com was banned. The reason? NASCAR executives felt it fostered a stereotype that, they say, no longer exists.
You might call it Bubba's last ride.