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Rea White, NASCAR Scene

In the public eye

Carl Edwards and Mark Martin were sitting in New York City, minding their own business, when a police detective came up and began questioning the pair about a woman he was seeking. Suddenly, the detective recognized the drivers and changed his approach.

The pair of drivers seemed unfazed by the incident, which happened not on a city street, but with cameras rolling on the set of the long-running TV soap opera, “Guiding Light.”

It’s not every day NASCAR puts two of its drivers on a show that’s aired, on TV or radio, for almost 70 years. But the “Guiding Light” appearance was only one part of NASCAR’s all-out media blitz Sept. 15 in New York City.

For the second year in a row, NASCAR officials and the drivers locked into the Chase For The Nextel Cup headed to the Big Apple for an evening with Chairman Brian France followed by abundant media appearances in the nation’s biggest media market. The itinerary may have been a bit different this time than a year ago (NASCAR’s first trip to the city with its championship contenders included all 10 drivers appearing on the “Today Show” and a fashion show with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa), but the well-orchestrated run through the city put the sport and its championship run in front of millions.

Tony Stewart became the first NASCAR driver to sit on the couch for an interview with David Letterman. Stewart, Greg Biffle and Rusty Wallace appeared on the “Today Show” with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. Another pair raced remote control cars on the WB’s morning show while an additional trio showed up on “Fox & Friends.” A discussion with New York print media netted coverage in The New York Times and New York Post. After some fan question and answer sessions and ESPN interviews, Edwards and defending champion Kurt Busch appeared on CNN Headline News to cap the busy day.

And, in a move of sportsmanship witnessed in no other sport, the 10 competitors opened the Chase segment of the season with a private dinner with France and several key NASCAR and Sprint-Nextel officials.

For NASCAR, this was a chance to show off its best of the year in the country’s largest city. For drivers, this was the last break before the pressure-filled and crucial segment of the season kicked into high gear. Hours before practicing for the first Chase race and days before debuting in the postseason, drivers enjoyed the cooking of noted chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay and the rare moments to sit back and enjoy one another without even addressing the sport they share.

“It’s been fun to just hang out with the guys,” Busch said of the two-day trip. “The top 10 guys, it feels like a fraternity.”
                  
Shining Light
For a few hours, they ceased to be men fighting for a championship and became a group with a common cause -- showing the nation what they and the sport had to offer.

Stewart, former champion and this season’s points leader entering the playoff format, jump-started the New York swing with a lively appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

“It was really a neat deal,” he said the morning after the show was taped and aired. “It was another one of those reality checks that we have finally made the big time.”

Stewart’s no stranger to that big time. He’s worked the circuit, appearing on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show, “Best Damn Sports Show,” “Live with Regis and Kelly” and the “Today Show.” But Letterman, that was a whole new experience. The driver went in cold turkey, choosing to shoot from the hip rather than try to have prepared talking points to work into the conversation. He utterly enjoyed the experience. Letterman must have too, because he invited Stewart to come back.

So, despite all his experience, was Stewart nervous?

“I was just so excited, so looking forward to it, I really didn’t get nervous about it,” he said. “I was really looking forward to being able to do that. David Letterman’s obviously a race car owner and a big race fan and a fellow Hoosier, so I guess that part, in itself, kind of took the nervousness away. [I] just went out there and had fun with it.”

Shortly after his appearance, he emerged from the elevator at The Regency Hotel chatting animatedly with CNN’s Larry King. Hours later, after a dinner at Flay’s new restaurant where the television personality/chef himself explained the dishes to the drivers, Stewart was at it again. But he wasn’t the first to hit the streets on the morning of Sept. 15. That honor went to fellow former champion Matt Kenseth, who headed out at 6:30 a.m. to join Jeremy Mayfield on the “WB Morning Show.”

At 6:45 a.m., Stewart, Biffle and Wallace loaded up to head to the “Today Show” and the next hour featured a general exodus to various locations.

By 8:20, Edwards and Martin sat in the rehearsal hall at the CBS studios, running through their lines with “Guiding Light” stars Rob Bogue and Laura Wright. They appeared as themselves in two scenes, one in which Martin had several lines addressing the attractiveness of a female character before the two were recognized as NASCAR drivers and another where they posed with a series regular admitting a love for NASCAR and getting her photo with the pair.

Sounds simple, but little apparently is in these sectors. The actors first defined NASCAR references in the script to make sure the terminology was correct in highlighting Edwards’ pass to win at Atlanta in March (this episode is scheduled to air on Oct. 21, so it references the upcoming race at the track).

As they waited in dressing rooms and hallways, learning their lines and meeting celebrities in a different world, the drivers confessed to a lack of knowledge and love for the soaps. Edwards, somewhat notorious for not even having cable TV, was such a novice to the concept that when he was told he would appear on the “Guiding Light” he first wondered if it was a religious show based on the name. He has never seen a single episode of a soap opera.

“First they had to explain to me what it was because I had never seen it, then I thought it would be pretty neat,” he said. “I’ve never seen a soap opera. Literally when I was a little kid I used to go to the babysitter and I remember the babysitter watching them and it was like watching these people talk and I didn’t get it. There’s no cars.”

Martin, meanwhile, confessed to a more intimate relationship with the daytime dramas.

“I got hooked in 1980 when I broke my ankles and I was on my back for three weeks,” admitted Martin, who watched the Luke and Laura saga on “General Hospital” in those days.

Perhaps they’ll both look at them again now that they’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes. And while they stepped out of character for a moment, thoughts of NASCAR and sponsors were never too far away. The final scene involved taking a photo with a cellphone. A quick switch to use Edwards’ own phone was made when a Sprint Nextel rep on the set noticed the phone wasn’t one of theirs and asked the props person if a change could be made.

By 11, Edwards and Martin returned to the real world and a series of appearances where they not only played themselves, but made up their own lines as well.

“To be honest, doing this today made me a little more nervous than my regular job [does],” Edwards said.

Meanwhile, morning show appearances wound down and Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Wallace and Edwards prepared for a frank and open series of interviews with print media representing the Times, the New York Post, Newsday, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated and the Boston Globe. Drivers addressed everything from their own chances in the Chase to personal and professional pitfalls each has faced.

Wallace, in his retirement season, stole the show. Entertaining reporters with stories of his past, he embraced the moment.

Never one to hold back, this trip to New York was his first in three years. He didn’t finish in the top 10 in the past two seasons and made the Chase for the first time this year. Comparing this appearance to his 1989 championship run through the city Wallace saw much more TV time and more interest in everyone involved than just the champion, as will be the case in November.

And he didn’t even consider driving one of the SUVs carrying the drivers through the packed New York streets. In 1989, that, too, was a little different, as Wallace recalls.

“I got in the back of a cab and the guy looked in the mirror and he slammed his brakes on … I said, ‘What’s wrong, man?’ and he said, ‘You’re Rusty Wallace, aren’t you?,’” Wallace recalled.

Well, yes he was, he admitted.

“He slams it in gear, jumps out and said, ‘You drive,’” Wallace said, laughing that he and then-teammate Buddy Parrott demurred.

If the same offer had been made on this day, would Wallace have agreed?

“No, they drive crazy up here,” he said.
         
That’s a wrap
A little after noon, all the drivers were in the process of conducting interviews with fans or media outlets in the ESPN SportsZone and Times Square area. Despite traffic woes created by the ongoing general assembly meetings at the United Nations, NASCAR and Nextel officials kept to the schedule and added events throughout the day.

While there were gaps compared to last year’s New York blitz (drivers teased one another about the lack of outfits to wear in the fashion show or hip wear for another MTV “TRL” appearance), NASCAR’s elite 10 earned quite a bit of publicity for their sport in a week when the nation remained riveted with coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Drivers discussed more than just the sport and the championship, speaking about relief efforts they personally are involved with for Katrina victims or other charities and foundations they represent.

For one day before the intensity began, they weren’t talking about chassis setups and testing strategy and how they got into the Chase. For a few minutes, they were the hot topic in New York. For a few hours, they sat back and enjoyed dinner and conversation with these men who are their friends and companions.

It would be a few days before these men were also, once more, obstacles to one another for the championship. NASCAR likes to find ways it is unique from other sports while trying also to mirror them in this new championship formula. But in one way they are completely separate. It’s unique in major professional sports to have the top competitors for a championship sit down with executives from the sanctioning body and one another, break bread and talk about everything going on in their lives except that title hunt.

In many ways, this trip to New York offered much more than a media push. For just a moment, it offered some breathing room in a season that was already 28 events long and getting ready to be a pressure-filled 10-week race.

“I think it’s good they did that,” Biffle said. “I got to talk to Tony some, we sat next to each other, and I talked to him some about his race track and we talked about different things, property and stuff like that. It’s interesting to see what everybody else is doing personal-wise and things like that. We traded stories about property we have and what we’re doing, where we’d like to live. It was pretty neat.”