NASCAR and the Hollywood Machine

For many years, auto racing has been treated like a minor sport, supported only by a few cult-like followers. Its sponsors and advertisers were mainly geared toward auto fanatics and "gear-heads", and its media coverage languished far below the radar of other more "popular" or "mainstream" sports.

But in recent years, NASCAR's exposure has grown by leaps and bounds, jumping onto the national scene, and attracting more diverse sponsors. News coverage has grown exponentially, as have the fans in many markets, including some markets where auto racing tended to be dismissed outright by previous generations.

But how can we tell if NASCAR has become a mainstream sport? By checking the Nielsen ratings for race events? By considering the millions of dollars bid for the new television contracts? By looking at the number of new advertisers during race broadcasts? By looking at the supermarket tabloids to see if any of the drivers are suspected of being hatched from an egg or abducted by aliens?

All of those things are fairly good indicators of pop culture status. Yes, even the tabloids. After all, if the drivers rank high enough to be tabloid material, they must be well known to the masses. But probably the best litmus test for current popularity is Hollywood.

The Hollywood machine constantly keeps to the front running edge of popular culture, and churns out movies that reflect the current times. When an event occurs that triggers strong reactions from the nation, or an idea becomes front-page news, chances are that a movie based on that idea or event is soon to follow.

And lately, Hollywood has started using NASCAR in more and more movies.

In past decades, lots of movies have been released about NASCAR. These are usually documentaries about the sport and "get inside" type programs. But those programs aren't really designed for the masses. They're created for those that are already fans of the sport and want a more detailed look inside. It's along the lines of Reality TV.

But in the past couple of years, more mainstream, mass-media type movies are being based around NASCAR.

One of the first was way back in 1990, when Tom Cruise starred in "Days of Thunder". Other minor movies and TV series followed for the next decade and a half, including an animated TV series and movie called "NASCAR Racers". But nothing made much of a splash, or pushed the sport to the forefront of Hollywood.

In 2004, NASCAR got a big Hollywood boost with the release of the IMAX film "NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience" which was a popular movie in the numerous IMAX theaters around the country. It not only gave a lot of background into the history of NASCAR, but it also used its 3D feel on the oversized screen to give viewers an idea of what itıs like to be at the track.

That same year, "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story" was released for television broadcast. While this was another docu-drama like so many before, more was put into this movie's production than similar movies in the past. And although it was meant to be for TV only, it was produced in much the same manner as big screen films.

2005 saw the return of Herbie the Love Bug, this time racing on a NASCAR track against current drivers. A few drivers of the cup circuit were even given roles in the movie, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Jarrett. The movie starred Lindsey Lohan, Michael Keaton, and Matt Dillon. How much more "pop culture" can you get?

Well, NASCAR got even more pop culture this year, with the upcoming release of the film "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" starring Will Ferrell, who was the Grand Marshal at Talladega this past weekend.

Another NASCAR film project is in pre-production, planned to be released in 2007, but details beyond "Untitled NASCAR Project" are unavailable at this time.

With more and more movies popping up based around NASCAR, it seems that auto racing has finally taken its rightful place in the land of "popular" sports. It's no longer the "other" sport, or a small "cult" sport. It's grabbed national attention, and reached the big time. Or at least, it's reached the Big Screen.

Published on May 5, 2006 in