Thursday, August 23, 2012

It’s Jeff’s Fault — Or How I Became a NASCAR Fan

Joey Logano accepting the 2009 Rookie of the Year Award
Photo by Jeff Speer
For most of my adult life, I have lived in a world of dancers, writers, artists and artisans, and academics. You know the drill — urban, chic, and totally involved in their creations and all their projects. Not exactly breeding ground for NASCAR fans. Oh, you get the occasional baseball or football enthusiast in the mix, but they tend to keep their friends' awareness of this aberration muted. After all, this is a crowd that has anti-Rose Bowl Game parties each year and looks at Super Bowl Sunday as an occasion to hit the uncrowded museums, art galleries, and even an ice rink or two. Any place that doesn't have a television tuned to the game.

In 2005, I began working as the dance reviewer for one of the two Las Vegas alternative weeklies. It quickly dawned on me that articles with good photos got better placement in the magazine and were less likely to get hacked to ribbons by the editors. But I'm not a photographer, and I certainly didn't have a decent camera or any photo-editing software. Fortunately, though, I was working in a marketing department whose art director, Jeff Speer, was an excellent photographer. I knew also that although he was an excellent graphic designer, he wanted to become recognized for his photos. His portfolio, though, had no performing arts material. However, there were a ton of baseball action shots.

Bingo! So I asked Jeff if he would be interested in taking pictures of cute girls with minimal clothing and an 80% guarantee of real publication. (Thought I would lead with the strongest part of my sales pitch.) After I filled him in on the details, he was hesitant, saying that he didn't know anything about ballet and wasn't sure how the whole thing could work. I explained to him that, just as with baseball, if the player/dancer bends his knees, there was a pretty good shot that he was going to jump in the air at some point. Only with dancers, they do it to music, and a photographer normally gets three opportunities for a good photo, as dancers often do a three-peat of the same step. Oh, and I offered to pay him a portion of every paid article that used his photos.

Within a year, Jeff had won a Dance magazine award for his dance photography — yes, he is that good — and became the official photographer for Nevada Ballet Theatre.

The No. 20 Home Depot Car (2009)
Photo by Jeff Speer
When I moved to a job editing for three technical theater magazines, Jeff and I worked together on articles involving live theater. In the process, we expanded from dance reviews to articles about local theatrical performances, and even restaurant reviews. And we were both getting published. Sweet. In 2008, I was made editor of a Las Vegas Italian-American lifestyle monthly magazine. Historically, the magazine focused on the classic Las Vegas stuff — The Rat Pack, Tony Bennett, local business owners — all of whom were either old or dead. My job was to find exciting, young Italian-Americans to feature in the magazine. I was asking everyone I knew for tips.

In late 2008, Jeff suggested that I try and get an interview with a young Italian-American driver — Joey Logano. While I knew the names of practically every dancer in San Francisco Ballet for the last three decades, I hadn't a clue about NASCAR drivers. Okay, I'd heard about Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough, but only just barely. But I needed a cover story, so I contacted the appropriate public relations liaison who arranged for me to interview Logano at his Home Depot appearance in advance of the 2009 Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Oh, and I arranged for Jeff to have a pass so he could get me some photos for the article.

As is usual for me, if I'm going to interview someone, I research the heck out of the interviewee and their particular area of expertise. In 2009, I watched my first race — the Daytona 500. The first thing that I noticed was that, like choreography, if someone misses a step, things don't go so well. But in NASCAR, the performers are executing the choreography at 200 mph. I was impressed. By the time I interviewed Joey Logano, I had watched the first races of the year — Sprint Cup and Nationwide. The interview with Logano and his family went well, Jeff did get those great shots, and the issue with Joey Logano on the cover was the most widely distributed issue in the magazine's ten-year history.

When a newbie asks how should they go about enjoying NASCAR races because their boyfriend, fiancé, husband, etc., is a total fan, the advice is always, "At first, pick one driver and follow him/her. It will keep you engaged while you learn the ins and outs of the sport." Well, since I actually had MET a driver, I started following him as he navigated his first year among the sport's elite performers.

The magazine also posted updates so readers could follow Logano's journey. Over the year, I discovered other drivers — some I liked, some not so much. What struck me most, however, was how many of the safety devices in our own cars were based on items tested by these amazing athletes in these extreme conditions. Respect.

The graphic La Voce News Magazine used
for its regular Logano updates
Design and photography by Jeff Speer
And how is this going over in my other universe? Well, most of my friends are completely baffled, which of course, is half the fun. My husband (a fiction writer and not much of a sports fan) just shakes his head and says, "I never know what she's going to do next," smiles, and manages to come into the room for the last twenty laps of most of the races. And, funny thing, NASCAR has become a factor in his latest book series.

Now, during the NASCAR season, I organize most of my weekend activities around the race schedule — racing during the day, ballet, opera, theater, and symphony in the evenings. Night races really play havoc on the performance schedule, though, especially when we have to leave for the theater with only twenty-five laps to go.

(As for Jeff, he is often at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, covering the races at most of the venues, including the Speedway, Bull Ring, and the Drag Strip, and working with the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure. His work can be seen at Speer Photography & Design.)