The race is on. Not the sprint to the checkered flag at today's LifeLock 400 at the Kansas Speedway - although that's shaping up to be a pivotal pit stop in the Nextel Cup points dash.
We're talking about the race to romance. The fast lane to affection. The pit pass to passion.
Ladies, start your engines!
According to author Liz Allison, more than half of today's NASCAR drivers are single, and the sport's fastest-growing fan base is 18- to 25-year-old women. Do the math, and you might be able to guess the most common question women asked Allison during her 2006 tour to promote "The Girl's Guide to NASCAR."
"How do I marry a NASCAR driver?"
And so a follow-up was born: "The Girl's Guide to Winning a NASCAR Driver" (Center Street, $17.99). The book navigates the curvy, crowded avenues that lead to a racer's heart, dispensing tips for how to catch your speedster's eye during an autograph session and what to talk about on your first date. (Hint: The answer is not his salary and benefits package.)
Having snagged a driver herself, the late Davey Allison, and covered the NASCAR circuit as a journalist, the author knows the ins and outs of racing. She also claims knowledge of the drivers' personality traits, favorite hangouts away from the track, and dating preferences.
But with potentially thousands of women gunning for only a handful of eligible drivers, how can one keep hope alive?
"I always tell girls to stay calm, cool and collected," Allison says from her home in Nashville, Tenn. "When you finally get what seems like that one-and-only chance to get that eye-to-eye contact with your favorite driver, don't blow it by asking him for his autograph. That's like the worst thing you can do.
"And never, never, never wear racing merchandise. You always want it to look like a chance meeting - even when it's not."
Rules of the chase
First thing's first. Jeff Gordon is off the market. In fact, his lovely wife, model Ingrid Vandebosch, gave birth to a daughter this summer.
On the other hand, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Emporia native Clint Bowyer and others are still up for grabs (metaphorically speaking, of course).
Allison's book - which in no way advocates making moves on a married driver - profiles the sport's top-flight singles, including their height, weight, hair color, hobbies, favorite charities and astrological signs.
It also gives a quick primer on the history of NASCAR and some of the terminology that will keep newcomers from looking dingy.
Even though Allison includes chapters on the hometown hangouts of drivers - from the short tracks they frequent on days off to the grocery stores they shop at - there's a fine line between chance meetings and stalking, she says.
Admirers also should be wary of earning a reputation as a "pit lizard." These are basically the equivalent of rock 'n' roll groupies who slither into places at the track they shouldn't be, wearing things they shouldn't wear to meet people they probably shouldn't meet to do things they definitely shouldn't do.
"And if the drivers don't work, then they'll move on to the crew chiefs and then the crew members," Allison says. "But there's not many of those girls around, luckily."
'A little obsessed'
Incidentally, the "pit lizard" tank top is one of the best-sellers in the TrackCouture line, developed by two Memphis twentysomethings to fill what they saw as an apparel gap for female NASCAR fans in the 18- to 35-year-old set who weren't high on wearing loose black T-shirts with race cars airbrushed on the front.
Their officially licensed gear has been available online for a year and a half, and they just opened their first store Thursday in Memphis. The clothing is casual, fits well and sometimes sports drivers' car numbers.
Co-owner Lisa Heros says she and her partner, Kathleen Smith, have heard from young women who appreciate being able to look good while supporting their favorite drivers. She also says some of her friends are among the fanatics who fall head over heels for the racers.
"I think it's more of a faraway crush, though. I don't think that they're really trying to go after them," Heros says. "There are definitely women who get a little obsessed wanting information about drivers."
"The likelihood of meeting one of the big-time drivers is pretty slim," says Lori Greenfield, a 35-year-old fourth-grade teacher at Prairie Park School whose family has season tickets to the Kansas Speedway.
Her favorite driver - she calls him "my guy" - is Jeff Gordon. He or his number (24) are featured on a notepad, a poster, a window sticker, a bobblehead doll, a mug and a cozy in Greenfield's classroom.
"Everybody knows me by my cozy," says Greenfield, who's married and has three children. "And if he wins on Sunday, I'll wear my Gordon gear on Monday to school."
Yes, far from the cradle of NASCAR mania - the South - Lawrence still has its racing devotees. Melissa Guadian, a paraeducator at Prairie Park, got interested in the sport about 10 years ago after watching a race with her brother, who lives near Lowes Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
"That day, I watched an interview with Tony Stewart," she recalls. "At that time, he was a young rookie driver. He seemed passionate about racing, and I really liked his genuineness."
Guadian - who's single and thinks Stewart is "cute" - watches NASCAR races every Sunday, travels to a couple of tracks a year and keeps up with standings online.
"There is nothing more exciting than hearing the engines at the start of the race or watching your driver win," she says.
Drive to devotion
Neither Greenfield or Guadian knows anyone who's serious about scouting out a NASCAR driver as a future groom.
For those considering the idea, though, Liz Allison warns that being a driver's girlfriend or wife can be taxing.
"It's a very hectic schedule. It's a grind, and keeping up with it is difficult, especially with kids," she says.
Besides, she notes, her book really is meant to be a fun, tongue-in-cheek read rather than a step-by-step guide to hooking a mate.
Among its most interesting features, Allison says, are the stories of how couples such as Buffy and Michael Waltrip, Donna and Bobby Labonte, and Pattie and Kyle Petty met and fell in love.
"There's a lot of really great women behind the scenes, and they're strong," Allison says. "They have a really good sense of balance about them, and that's what helps these guys stay on track."