NASCAR goes Hollywood
Officials push new film, TV projects in bid to continue fan base growth; 'Cars' seen helping attract new young fan base.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - The most watched auto race of the year likely won't be this weekend's Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500 earlier this year. It'll be the Piston Cup.
If you haven't heard of that race, you will soon. It's the big race in Pixar's new movie "Cars," which hits thousands of theaters across the nation June 9.
"Cars" should be very good news for the auto racing industry, which admits that it has challenges attracting young fans the way other sports do. Even though NASCAR has become the second most popular spectator sport in the country, its officials admit they have a disadvantage competing with other sports for the attention and loyalties of kids.
"When you see the movie with your kids, you'll see why that will add value for us," said Dick Glover, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting and new media. "It'll make kids really fall in love with these cars. And hopefully, the next time they see a NASCAR race on television, they'll say, 'Oh, there's the race cars, can I watch it?'"
Even with the growing popularity of NASCAR, only 7.2 percent of the audience for this year's Daytona 500 was aged 2 to 11. And the race took place during the daytime. By way of comparison, 7.4 percent of the much larger viewership for the Super Bowl were kids aged 2 to 11...and that game aired late into the night.
Part of the problem for motor sports is that it's not exactly one a kid can easily participate in. A father is more likely to toss a baseball or football around with his son or daughter or shoot hoops with them. "Racing has a tougher time because it's not a backyard sport," said Fred Nation, spokesman for the Indianapolis Racing League (IRL), which runs the Indy 500.
"Cars" could raise the sport's profile with children. In the movie, which focuses on a hot-shot young race car voiced by Owen Wilson, the cars are human-like characters.
And given that Pixar, which was recently purchased by Walt Disney Co. (Research), has a perfect track record for making blockbuster hits, "Cars" is likely to be seen by far more than the record 19.4 million who tuned into the Daytona 500 in February.
The movie will have its premiere Friday night at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. The track sold out 30,000 tickets for the movie nearly a month ago. It's being shown on four giant screens set up at turn 2 of the track. NASCAR legend Richard Petty is one of the voices of a character in the movie, as is former driver Darrell Waltrip.
Pixar made the movie without any participation from NASCAR. But NASCAR has been actively promoting itself in movies and television shows.
The sport is making big waves in Hollywood. Glover heads a 19-person office overlooking the Fox studios in Century City, Calif. Half of his staff works actively on developing and participating in movies.
While Glover won't give details, NASCAR got a box office cut from the movie "Herbie Fully Loaded," in 2005, in which a Volkswagen Beetle ends up in a NASCAR race. While critically panned, Herbie did worldwide box office of $144 million.
And even though that film was about NASCAR, the IRL made sure its highest-profile star, Danica Patrick, was on the red carpet for Herbie's premiere.
NASCAR's marketing muscle has allowed it to leave the IRL in the dust in terms of fans and viewers in recent years. But the IRL's Nation said he thinks his sport will benefit from these latest efforts by its rival.
"I think a rising tide lifts all boats in that sense," said Nation. "NASCAR has taken the lead. But we've seen an increasing number of movie scripts involving the Indy 500. We have a well known producer and screenwriter here this weekend who are working on a project. Anything that raises interest in motorsports is a positive for all of us."
In addition to the movies, Glover said NASCAR has got a morning kids cartoon program in development as well.
And NASCAR isn't just focusing on kids. It is involved in the development of the new Will Ferrell movie, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," which is due in theaters Aug. 4.
NASCAR has also had some of its drivers appear in various television shows, including daytime soap operas. It even came out with the first of its own NASCAR-branded Harlequin romance novels earlier this year.
"We think it absolutely is important to get our product out in popular culture," said Glover. "Even though NASCAR has been around 50 years, it hasn't been part of the general consciousness. We're still the new kid on the block."
NASCAR got a lift from the 1990 Tom Cruise movie "Days of Thunder," but NASCAR officials generally hate the film, which had multiple inaccuracies about the sport. Still Glover concedes the success of the film ($157.9 million worldwide box office, or the equivalent of more then $300 million today) helped the sports' popularity.
Today NASCAR has a big enough fan base that Hollywood can stand to gain as much as the sport by targeting race car aficionados, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitors Relations Co., a box office tracking firm.
"I don't know who's helping who, whether NASCAR is helping the movies or if the movies are helping NASCAR," he said. "It's probably some of both. The sport has gotten so big now compared to when "Days of Thunder" came out that there's a huge opportunity there for a lot of extra money if you can bring the NASCAR audience into the movie theaters."
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