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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2007
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CULTURE SHOCK
Franklin Harris

NASCAR revs its engines and sends hearts racing

At a local bookshop, the sci-fi section begins where the romance section ends. Otherwise, I would never have discovered what is one of publishing's strangest marketing tie-ins.

I somehow missed the announcement back in November 2005, but Harlequin, the venerable publisher of disposable romance novels, has entered into an agreement with NASCAR.

In terms of cross-promotion, this ranks up there with last year's bizarre, one-time (I hope) smash-up between Marvel Comics and the CBS soap opera "Guiding Light."

The less said about that, the better. You can Google it if you simply must know.

NASCAR's press release, which I found on the company's Web site, explains:

"The upcoming novels, written by some of Harlequin's bestselling authors, will have plotlines centering on NASCAR and will feature the NASCAR brand on their covers. Harlequin will serve as the first and only publisher of women's fiction for NASCAR."

That was nearly two years ago. By now, there are more than a dozen Harlequin/NASCAR books in print and testing the limits of multimedia synergy. The titles include "Hearts Under Caution," "Old Flame, New Sparks," "Speed Bumps" and "Speed Dating." The covers usually feature race drivers in the spot formerly reserved for Fabio.

I think this is the sort of thing NASCAR old-timers have in mind when they say this isn't your daddy's stock car racing. Of course, if NASCAR isn't what it used to be, neither are NASCAR fans.

Back to NASCAR's press release: "Research shows that of the 75 million NASCAR fans in this country, 40 percent are female."

Harlequin is counting on at least a few of those female fans wanting to mix their love of racing with their love of love. And maybe it's not as crazy an idea as it seems because Harlequin isn't the only publisher trying to cash in on female race fans.

NASCAR analyst Liz Allison, the widow of late NASCAR driver Davey Allison, recently released "The Girl's Guide to Winning a NASCAR Driver." Allison calls her book "tongue-in-cheek" and says it's "just a fun book of how to daydream about your favorite race car driver."

I hope her readers are in on the joke. In any case, if you look up Allison's book at Amazon.com, you'll see that customers who bought it also purchased Harlequin's NASCAR books.

This isn't the first time Harlequin has stepped outside of its traditional romance-novel box. Harlequin also publishes a line of comics drawn in the Japanese manga style.

Given that manga is one of publishing's major growth categories, it makes sense to try to hook teenage girls on comics in the hope they'll eventually graduate to Harlequin's bread-and-butter bodice rippers.

So, where does Harlequin go next? What other professional sports are ripe for romance?

This could be a whole new medium for David Beckham to conquer. I mean, it's not as if the Los Angeles Galaxy's $250 million man is putting in much time on the soccer pitch these days.

Maybe I'm just not creative enough. Every time I try to think of a clever title for a romance novel set in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, the result sounds more like the title of the sort of movie you'd find in a video store's back room, if you see where I'm going.

Apparently, there is a thin line between romance and smut.

Anyway, for all I know, Harlequin has already announced deals with other professional sporting leagues and I just haven't heard about them.

I could go online and Google the answer, but I really don't want to find out. After what I saw in the bookshop, I'm starting to think there are some things man was just not meant to know.

As for you women, try to keep it to yourselves.

Franklin Harris, fharris@decaturdaily.com, is assistant metro editor.

Franklin Harris Franklin Harris
DAILY Asst. Metro Editor

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