NASCAR is on a constant quest to build its fan base, just as any smart business looks to expand its clientele. The minds behind the world’s biggest motorsports series already have the gearheads, the die hard race fans and the Americana sports crowd. But, they’re looking to draw more interest from multicultural sectors, pop culture devotees and sports fans less informed about the visceral excitement and atmosphere of auto racing.
The up and down results of these efforts were on full display at the 55th running of the Daytona 500. On the plus side of the ledger, there was a stronger multicultural presence both in the stands and on race crews – further dispelling the tired myth that NASCAR is primarily a “Red State/White Bread” sport. But, in the “write off” column, we have what I’ll call the James Franco Experiment.
To hitch the NASCAR trailer to pop culture events creaking out of the Hollywood/New York garage, race officials welcomed James Franco (star of “OZ: The Great and Powerful”) to Daytona International Raceway as the 2013 Grand Marshal. There was no observable connection between NASCAR, the 500 and Franco beyond the fact that the race was taking place in late February close to when the actor had a movie premiering. That stretched the credibility of Franco’s presence in Florida on race weekend tighter than an undersized fan belt – and Franco’s unique blend of cluelessness bit back on NASCAR hard.
As Grand Marshal, as 43 cars took their places on the starting grid, it fell on Franco to take the microphone during pre-race festivities and shout out the four most famous words in racing: “Drivers! Start your engines!” Of course, the traditional phrase of “...gentlemen, start your engines...” no longer serves in the 21st Century as one Danica Patrick not only lined up for her first run in the Daytona 500, but she led the field from pole position.
Getting those stock car ignitions turned over demanded either adherence to tradition or a little finesse and sensitivity this year. It didn’t require Hemingway-ish levels of editorial restraint. Franco could have easily gotten away with, “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!” if he chose to do away with the standard “Drivers...”. If the NASCAR branding folks wanted to take advantage of Patrick’s mass market appeal, maybe he could’ve gone with “Gentlemen – and Danica – start your engines!”
A child could handle that. Siri on my iPhone could manage it. Franco, evidently, could not.
There were signs of trouble earlier in the day at Franco’s pre-race press conference. The five or so minutes with which the disheveled and bleary-eyed thespian deemed to grace the NASCAR press corps included some (herein paraphrased) warning that “maybe something should be different about this year’s pre-race announcement.”
But, no one with NASCAR, up in the stands, within the infield, in the pits or in the Media Room could’ve predicted how badly Franco would botch his big moment.
As the track announcer introduced Franco as Grand Marshal and set up the four most famous words in racing, our would-be wizard unpacked, “Drivers – and Danica – start your engines!”
I assume he was trying to highlight the historic significance of Danica starting on the pole. Instead, he singled her out as somehow different (perhaps even beneath) the other male drivers. Franco needs to look up the meaning of “patronizing” as his ham-fisted, back-handed compliment essentially said, “Look, guys. Isn’t this cute? There’s a girl in the race, and she thinks she’s a driver!”
Maybe someone failed to slip Franco the news that Patrick has been a full-time driver at the Indy Car, Nationwide and Sprint Cup levels. She’s not on the track to prove she can do some “big boy laps.”
I’ve interviewed Patrick. I’ve talked to plenty of people who deal with her all week long during the NASCAR season. She does her practice laps. She goes through time trials. She has her endorsements, sponsors and commercials to deal with, like many other drivers. She wants to go about her business of being a race car driver. She doesn’t want to be singled out endlessly as a track novelty. Franco made sure that happened for this year’s Daytona 500 before she could so much as hit her ignition switch.
Franco had one line, and he blew it. Maybe that’s what happens when an actor doesn’t get a second take before a live audience. More likely, it’s what happens when someone who couldn’t give a hell’s toss about racing or NASCAR is allowed to get near a racetrack.
It’s genuinely possible that NASCAR officials didn’t watch the 18-hour 2012 Oscar telecast. Few survived who did. But, Franco made. I guess we should thank Hollywood for continuing to trot mediocre clowns like this past our eyes at every opportunity.
I understand why NASCAR is eager to reach across pop culture lines to get their events and their drivers in front of eyes that haven’t yet beheld racing. But, they’re learning the hard way how careful they need to be while picking their friends. While Franco was airing his 87 octane IQ, rapper 50 Cent was trying to suck Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews’ face off with a torturously awkward on-air kiss – while not throwing around vulgar and racist tweets.
We all know the cliche, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The showbiz antics stumbling around Daytona International Speedway – following on the heels of Patrick’s qualifying success and the previous day’s spectacular Nationwide crash on the final straightaway – kept NASCAR on the national news for days. But, the halfwit Franco/50 Cent sideshow distracted some worthy attention from Jimmie Johnson’s impressive win. And, a repeat performance of anything resembling the thrown away “...start your engines...” line and its ilk risk making the epic 500 a bit of a circus.
Just as the Super Bowl halftime show recovered from wardrobe malfunctions, the Daytona 500 will survive smug actors and puckering rappers. NASCAR is a great American sport, and the Daytona 500 is its halo event. While the minds behind it are rightfully working hard to open more eyes to the appeal of both, it’s a good bet they’ll be vetting and prepping their celebrity guests more closely in the future.