Determined to leave its Skoal-in-the-cheek image in the rearview mirror, NASCAR is going Hollywood.

The first pro sport with a stand-alone entertainment arm, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Inc. wants to bring film and TV audiences along for the ride.

Century City-based NASCAR Digital Entertainment Ltd. has a staff of about 25 employees with a combination of film, television, music and racing backgrounds. The firm wants to capitalize and grow the sport's already burgeoning fan base and is willing to use a little good old-fashioned Hollywood muscle to do it.

The premise is a simple one: In return for the exposure to untapped TV and film audiences who may never have seen a stock car race, NASCAR is willing to bring its hordes of hardcore fans into the theaters.

"Some people think NASCAR is a Southern thing, and while we got started in the South, it's gone way past that now," said Sarah Nettinga, NASCAR's director of film, television and music entertainment. "My job is to put the sport in mainstream and pop culture any way we can and appeal to new fans."

The appeal for movie studios is the marketing reach that NASCAR brings 75 million fans, countless promotional opportunities and valuable sponsors. The corporate backers are significant: Fortune 500 companies sponsored NASCAR more than any other sport last year, and the sport's fans dole out $2 billion a year on licensed products.

"They have opened a lot of doors for us, with sponsors and promotions," said Valerie Van Galder, president of domestic marketing for Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. "That's part of their initiative; they're interested in turning into an entertainment company. They've really made a lot of friends in Hollywood."

The latest fruit of that friendship is Sony Pictures Entertainment's upcoming comedy, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," which stars Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.

The racing circuit brought several sponsors including Sprint Nextel Corp., Old Spice, Wonder Bread, Rallys/Checkers and Discount Tire Co Inc. into the film. As Bobby, Ferrell will drive a Wonder Bread car and wear a Wonder Bread uniform.

NASCAR and Sony were mum on the financial specifics of the "Talladega Nights" deal, declining to comment on what percentage of upfront money, the box office or DVD sales the circuit might be in line for. But they were clear on the horsepower that NASCAR brought to the table.

"Marketing and publicity cannot be undersold because we are such a powerful brand and because we are so good at marketing our sport," Nettinga said. "We feed into already-in-place marketing for our huge fan base."

NASCAR had a level of script approval and will receive an executive producer credit as part of the "Talladega Nights" deal, and NASCAR reps were stationed on the set for the duration of the filming.

The first films from the entertainment unit were 2004's "NASCAR 3D: The IMAX experience" and last year's "Herbie Fully Loaded," which featured cameos from star drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rusty Wallace.

The sport is clearly ahead of the curve in product and corporate sponsorship. The brand integration Hollywood so loves gets a great run on the cars, uniforms and racetracks festooned with product names and logos.

Studios have even sponsored racecars to push their upcoming films. Warner Bros. anted up more than $1 million to rechristen NASCAR's Michigan race as the "Batman Begins 400" and Ferrell will be the official starter at the Sheetrock 400 in Chicago on July 8, which will also serve as the press junket for "Talladega Nights."

The L.A. NASCAR office has parked the sport in a variety of movie production roles, and NASCAR staffers have served as creative consultants, rights licensors for race footage and location scouts.

Exposure overdrive

For NASCAR, the payoff comes from increased exposure. The entertainment division was launched in 2000 to negotiate broadcast rights, though that quickly grew into a bigger entertainment-driven mandate, with Nettinga and Dick Glover, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting and new media steering the efforts.

The giant media firms "have huge entertainment branches and arms and we wanted to take advantage of that," Nettinga said. "They hired me to mine the studios for opportunities to work with NASCAR in product placement, feature films and the like."

The fastest-growing major sport is second only to the National Football League in television ratings, and has cashed in on its new popularity.

Fox, NBC and Turner Sports are in the final year of a six-year, $2.8 billion contract to broadcast NASCAR races. The racing circuit has negotiated an eight-year, $4.5 billion deal that will begin in 2007 and will include broadcasts on News Corp.'s Fox Network and the Fox-owned Speed Channel, the Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 and Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Network.

NASCAR says its research shows the sports fans watch about eight hours of racing programming a week. Beyond the race broadcasts, there was "NASCAR Drivers: 360" on the FX Network, a Biography series on NASCAR's up-and-comers and even Animal Planet segments on drivers and their pets.

"Research has shown that a lot of our growth has been in the past 10 years and most definitely our TV exposure is a part of that," Nettinga said. "It has done a lot to nationalize the sport."

Say that you can't get to a TV for the final lap?

Sirius Satellite Radio paid $107 million for the exclusive satellite radio rights to the 2007 through 2011 racing seasons.

An indicator of its new status as a Tinseltown player is that NASCAR gets more pitches than it knows what to do with. It's very picky about its projects. After all, it has an image to uphold.

"The movie audiences are very fickle, as the studios know," Nettinga said. "We want projects that actually grow the sport. Just being in a movie and about racing is not enough. NASCAR is what we are; if you ever lose your product, nothing else matters."

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