- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

The image of NASCAR has long been one of sweat, gasoline, rubber, metal and machismo at high speeds.

That still may hold true, but the racing association recently has rolled out the red carpet for a more sensitive set of fans by licensing a host of new NASCAR products catering to women.

“When you look at new fans, one out of every two new fans is female,” NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola said. “They’re the fastest growing segment of our fan base, and there was a gap in the market. We don’t see it as re-shaping the image of NASCAR, but about meeting the needs of fans.”

Women make up just more than 40 percent of NASCAR’s fan base, and their numbers are increasing. But perhaps more importantly, women have some influence on about 80 percent of every household dollar spent. They’re the gift givers, the event organizers and, in most cases, the ones holding the wallet.

In the last five years, sales of NASCAR merchandise for women has increased from $50 million to $250 million while sales of other merchandise remained relatively flat. Track Couture, a Memphis-based company founded by two female NASCAR fans, offers a line of shirts, skirts and hoodies with racing logos. Motorsports Authentics of Leesport, Pa., now offers a full line of women’s NASCAR clothing, including uniforms, jerseys, sweatshirts, T-shirts and caps.

Tissot, the official watch and timekeeper of NASCAR, is developing a line of NASCAR women’s watches. They will be a smaller, more colorful version of the T-Race watch, whose design borrows elements from a racecar dashboard.

There also are fancy NASCAR shoes from top designers including Nicole Miller, and leather jackets produced by Wilson Leather.

“We’re all aware of the targeting of the 18- to 34-year-old male, but in most cases that 18- to 34-year-old male has a woman standing next to him,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “This is a two-pronged strategy that not only serves those people who are fans but also reaches the people who are controlling the spending.”

Perhaps the most unique of the products is a line of Harlequin romance novels set against the backdrop of the NASCAR world. The first title, “In the Groove,” sold 200,000 copies upon its release last fall, and Harlequin will roll out two new titles this year and 21 more in 2007. One title, “Speed Dating,” will feature a cameo by driver Carl Edwards.

Both NASCAR and Harlequin said the books are expected to sell well because fans of each are known for being fiercely loyal.

“It’s really turned into a lovely partnership,” Harlequin spokeswoman Marleah Stout said. “There are a lot of similarities between the two of us. A lot of people don’t realize that.”

NASCAR’s efforts to attract and cater to female fans aren’t limited to retail outlets. Entertainment at NASCAR events often is designed to please a diverse set of fans. At the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day, for instance, race festivities included a concert by last year’s “American Idol” winner, Carrie Underwood, and other artists popular among women.

“It makes sense to market sports to women,” said Michele Miller, an Arizona-based consultant on marketing to women. “More often than not, they’ve been introduced to NASCAR by a boyfriend or husband. Women have fun and through the enjoyment of the sport also strengthen the personal connection with their partners.”

Increasing television exposure of the races and drivers has indirectly lured more female fans to the sport as well.

NASCAR drivers were once seen only as gruff and terse figures behind the wheel, but they now have far more chances to display their true personalities and even offer insight into their personal lives. Clean-cut and well-spoken drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson also have softened the sport’s image in recent years.

“Our drivers are accessible, authentic and down to earth, and women like that,” Giangola said.

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