Why NASCAR Has So Many Female Hearts Racing

By David KirContributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Why NASCAR Has So Many Female Hearts Racing


David KirContributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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