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The Yellow Stripe: Shooting TV Ads with the NASCAR Stars – My Memories Behind the Scenes

Advertising is a fickle business at even the best of times. Long hours, low pay, huge stress and the odd co-worker who’d stab you in the back at the drop of a hat are just some of the daily occupational hazards. Believe me when I say it’s not all martinis at lunchtime on Madison Avenue – far from it. But occasionally, amidst the machinations of one of the most cutthroat professions in the world, there are brilliant days – the sort of days that remind you why you got into the industry in the first place.

For me, those days came when we made TV commercials with the NASCAR drivers you see each weekend. In the two years I worked on Sprint Nextel’s sports sponsorships at a Manhattan-based ad agency, I had both the privilege and the pleasure of shooting spots with a veritable Who’s Who of the sport’s biggest names: Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeremy Mayfield, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Jimmie Johnson.

My first shoot came over a drizzly, frigid couple of days at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The spot was called “Flip,” and it featured both Martin and Edwards. Now, at this time I’d only been in the industry for about three months, so I didn’t know a lot about, well, anything; but what I did know was that I didn’t like Edwards. Maybe it was the big old white toothy smile (something us Brits mock but secretly envy) or maybe it was the “aw shucks” persona – but something Edwards did made me dislike him. I’d go as far to say that at that early stage, he was my least favorite driver. Needless to say, I was going to be nothing but professional on the shoot; but I wasn’t expecting to like him.

How wrong could I have been?

During a pause for a torrential downpour, Edwards stood under the temporary tarpaulin shelter with us, and was as keen to talk about his time as a substitute teacher as he was his driving career. When he found out I was British, he told me excitedly about a recent trip of his to a couple of cities in my home country. Believe me when I tell you I was not expecting that. As evidenced by the heavens opening, commercial shoots and scripts have a habit of being fluid. Much can change – depending on the skill of the director and the moods and acting abilities of the protagonists – and in “Flip,” we had just such an example. As we talked through the script – still in the rain delay – Carl suggested the final line of “Crazy old man.” I remember distinctly thinking, “Oh, there’s no way that’s going to work.” That, of course, was before I met the legend that was Martin; his reaction to Carl’s suggestion was to laugh and agree to the line on the spot. With one simple yes, “crazy old man” became part of the NASCAR vernacular from that point on.

The following week, we returned to LMS to shoot two more ads with Stewart and Mayfield. On the first day, we shot “Piñata,” which features Mayfield apologizing to Stewart for an on-track incident the previous week. Stewart is all nonchalant the whole time – as he uses his Sprint phone to check on how the Mayfield piñata he had asked for was coming along. Leading up to the shoot, there was much angst as to what Mayfield would think of the “Jeremy Mayfield piñata.” So, we made a number of different piñata options – each with varying degrees of ridiculousness. But just like Martin, Mayfield was more than up for it, and he ended up picking the piñata we all hoped he would. Stewart was not slow to show his personality, either. In between a couple of takes, he sauntered past a group of us and said, “Not bad for an amateur, huh?” grinning broadly. After the taping, the Mayfield piñata went on to make a brief appearance on SPEED’s popular Trackside Live show, a sure sign the ad had permeated popular NASCAR culture. As a title sponsor, that’s exactly what you want your advertising to achieve.

The day after we shot “Hauler” which is, in my humble opinion, the best of all the ads I worked on. When we talked Mayfield through the concept, he liked the spot a lot – but he kept saying how sad it was we had to actually crush a car! Of course, the No. 20 we squashed wasn’t actually a Home Depot Chevrolet; instead, it was a shell of a (then) Busch Series vehicle, decaled up and pre-prepared to crumple with all the spare parts stripped out. We only had two cars for the shoot, so there really was absolutely no room for error; that sent the nerves up a few notches. On the first take, I skipped back an extra 20 meters (yes, I fully admit I was scared) as the massive hauler reversed inexorably closer to its orange victim. The take you see in the ad was the first of the two cars we crushed, and I love the look of curious (and I think very genuine) interest Mayfield gives the Home Depot machine as it starts to bend and buckle. We wanted to take one of the leftovers back to our office in New York after the shoot; but in the end, we settled for a hood from the No. 20 car, which sat proudly at our producer Laura’s desk from then on.

The following year we shot “Magic” with Kahne and McMurray, and it was another spot that didn’t disappoint. Working with live animals can be fraught with difficulty, so when Kasey arrived, we immediately talked to him about whether he was OK handling the flop-eared white rabbit for the cameras. Kasey looked at us incredulously, and explained he had grown up with a bunch of animals – and as if we weren’t convinced, he proceeded to start naming them. McMurray was also a good sport; he positively reveled in his mock-evil role and the “get me a bunny” line.

Two days later, we shot a spot called “Trophy” with Sadler and Johnson who, just a few months removed from his first Sprint Cup title, arrived 30 minutes early and by himself. Sadler was, as you would expect, an absolute blast. He was charm personified with the clients and was an easy person to work with alongside Jimmie. It was also the first time since the season had finished that the two drivers had seen each other, and it was noticeable that the first thing Elliott did was to congratulate Jimmie with great warmth. But the really amusing story from this shoot was the rather special ruse played on the client by the agency and members of the production crew. The trophy you see in the ad is the real Sprint Cup, so the crew created a very realistic fake version of the trophy which the “handler” then “dropped” right in front of the client. The looks on their faces as the fake trophy lay in pieces on the LMS concrete (and the ham acting by Sadler who was in on the joke) were priceless. Not a tough day at the office by any stretch of the imagination…

But the shoot I enjoyed the most during my NASCAR advertising days was “Fan,” with Harvick and a super fan trying to “sniff” the glass-enclosed Sprint Cup. Since you only have a limited window of time with a driver, you need to maximize every minute. In the case of “Fan,” the director needed some over the shoulder shots of Harvick where his face would not be visible. A “body double” was needed; and who was I to refuse? The intention was to have Kevin sign some merchandise and leave while I would don his firesuit and pose for however long the director needed. The plan was for me to quickly get changed and head back down to the set, long before Harvick could see his suit being used. But like all the best laid plans, this one went completely awry. I got the suit on as quick as I could (yes, it was very fun to wear) and headed back to the elevator bank. I hit the down button and waited… and waited. But just as the elevator made the tell tale bing, around the corner came Harvick himself.

The elevator doors opened, and we both stepped inside. The doors close, and just for a second, there’s this awkward silence. I’m standing there wearing the firesuit Harvick had used just one weekend before, staring at the floor hoping it would swallow me up – as well as him in his street clothes. But the moment passes; Harvick smiles and nods. I do likewise.

“You look good in that,” Harvick says with a grin. I stammered for a bit like a complete fool before uttering what I now consider to be possibly the least sensible of options. My response? “Not as good as you do, mate.” He laughed and the elevator (mercifully) reached the ground floor. I gestured for him to leave first, and wished him luck for the remainder of the season before bolting for the relative security of the set.

Good times, as they say; but even by NASCAR’s crazy standards, it’s a pretty unique story. And let’s be fair – it’s as close to being an elite NASCAR driver as I’m ever going to get…

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