For most of us, a job is just a job: something we have to endure from Monday to Friday in order to make ends meet, pay the bills, and all that good stuff. But for others, it’s so much more than that.
For Monica Palumbo, one of three Miss Sprint Cups, you definitely get the sense that’s the case. Most of you reading this column would recognize her as the lady in the Sprint firesuit in victory lane – smiling broadly in the background behind that particular week’s winning driver. You might be forgiven for thinking that’s the extent of her role; but you couldn’t, however, be more wrong.
“[Victory lane] is the smallest part of our race weekend,” says Palumbo.
So if it’s not about getting covered with all manner of sponsored beverages (more on that later) what exactly does the job entail?
“I head to the track on Thursday and spend most of my time at the Sprint Experience – the Sprint Mobile Marketing display. I help emcee, hang out with race fans, and interview drivers,” she said. “I do a NASCAR.com piece about each track and how they’re different; help out with the pre-race show; do a live Sprint Pit Road report; make appearances in the suites, then end up in victory lane.”
Before you think it’s all glamour and glitz, it’s not. As Palumbo points out, “some mornings we have live [radio hits] starting at 5:30 a.m.”
But sitting in Bubby’s, one of downtown Manhattan’s very best brunch spots last Thursday, on a quick pit stop before heading to Pocono to fulfill her Miss Sprint Cup duties and to promote the release of Sprint’s new 4G handset the ETC EVO, it’s crystal clear that she loves the job – despite the very long days.
Palumbo attends up to 30 races a year, which is a hefty, hectic travel schedule whatever your standards. Her favorite tracks, though, couldn’t be more different, as she lists Bristol “like putting cars in a blender” and Infineon as her top two circuits. Palumbo also adores the Halloween weekend at Talladega: “It’s like Mardi Gras – so festive,” she exclaimed. “You can be miles away and smell the firewood burning. There are people everywhere, beads, lights, parties, it’s insane… a great race to watch.”
Ultimately, though, being Miss Sprint Cup is as much about connecting with the fans as the race itself. “Being able to talk with them, spending time with them, sharing stories,” is a crucial component of the job. “We want to be the fan’s friend on the inside,” notes Palumbo.
So does she see fans again and again?
“All the time, I know quite a few by name (she rattles off a long list). Some I see 10 races a year, more even.” Social networking is also a key tool in her role: “You can reach a few thousand each weekend,” she explains. “But to really stay connected, you have to do it via Facebook and Twitter. I’m constantly on Facebook – hopefully, we’re not updating too much!”
As you might expect they get some, shall we say, colorful messages via this route, plus a fair few requests for dates. “Some requests, we probably couldn’t put together. You get some wild ones…” chuckles Palumbo with a degree of tact.
Other fans aren’t shy to declare which of the three Miss Sprint Cups they prefer. So does this promote a sort of sibling rivalry between the ladies? “No, not at all,” said Palumbo, quick to squash that rumor. “We’re not competing with each other. We just want to bring the fans the inside scoop.”
But what about those close to her? How do they react to her rather prominent, “in the public eye” job? Her other half is a fan, but she has friends who don’t like NASCAR. “Yeah, they think it’s hilarious that I wear a firesuit,” she said. “They think I’m some kind of Power Ranger character.”
Growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Palumbo was more than well aware of stock car racing but didn’t become a die-hard fan until she took the job back in 2008. For her immediate family, it was a different story: “My grandfather was a huge fan of the sport,” she explained. “He loved Junior Johnson and my father, he used to own a retail store – and I just found this out – Davey Allison once did an appearance at the store!”
Now, on her rare off weekends, Palumbo likes to stay updated via Sprint Cup mobile and it gets to the point where she’s so glued to the phone that her boyfriend tells her to turn it off. Just as it did with me, though, a love for NASCAR sneaks up on you and that’s clearly the case for the vivacious Palumbo.
Back, though, to victory lane for a moment and the best celebrations. “[Jeff] Gordon at Texas (in 2009) was insane,” she claimed. “The Daytona 500 [this year] Jamie McMurray was very emotional; Kevin Harvick at Talladega [in April]… the guys were so pumped. It’s hard to pick one; they’re all good experiences.”
For some, like Jimmie Johnson, apparently it’s old hat. “There were times when he’d go to victory lane and his team had it down to a tee. They knew the hat dance… a few celebrated, but they were like let’s pack up the wagon… you know… they’re excited to be there, but they want to get out of there, too.” The No. 48 crew has another routine down pat; they like to spray her with as much sponsor product as possible. Palumbo notes that Kyle Busch and the M&M’s crew also make it their mission to ensure she gets a good soaking, along with Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team.
Palumbo has two firesuits that have to last the whole season so, as you might imagine, there’s a lot of washing to be done in the week. “Sometimes, I wish I could wash them on race weekends. Don’t get too close on Sunday,” she jokes. And when asked who smells the worst in victory lane, Palumbo was both honest and self-deprecating: “They all do – me included.”
She also hopes to see AJ Allmendinger in victory lane one of these days, and lists David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. as being two of her favorite drivers. “I root for the underdogs,” Palumbo notes, a fact backed up by her wish to see Joe Nemechek win a race. You can’t have it all, I suppose.
So what’s the hardest part of the job? “Trying to be on all day is hard,” she says. “Some days when its 90-100 degrees, like at Darlington, there’s no breathing room, you’re profusely sweating and you’re just trying to keep your energy up all day. That can be hard.”
All of which begs the question as to what she would be doing if the Sprint job hadn’t come up. “I have no clue. If I wasn’t doing this I’d maybe open up a doggy day care (at this point Palumbo showed a photo of her two beloved pugs) or work with animals. Who knows? I just try to live day-by-day.”