Commercial shoots keep Cup stars on their game in busy offseason

CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Stewart seemed oblivious to the woman spritzing hair spray on his ever-growing wavy black locks and twisting them to make sure every hair was in place.

So did Kevin Harvick as a woman dabbed powder under his eyes while he talked to the two-time Nextel Cup champion.

"The day we have to do it in the garage is probably the day I quit," Stewart said with a laugh. "It feels kind of weird the first couple of times you do it. As you get used to it you don't even think about it and know it's part of the deal."

Stewart and Harvick were preparing for a commercial shoot promoting Coke Zero as a part of NASCAR's Coca-Cola team.

A few feet away, Dale Jarrett, Elliott Sadler, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip never stopped their conversation as makeup artists worked to erase the shiny spots on their faces.

Next to them, Kyle Petty was having his forehead wiped.

"They can touch everything but the ponytail," Petty quipped.

The drivers seemed as comfortable here as they are going nearly 200 mph around Lowe's Motor Speedway just outside this Nationwide Series garage-turned-television studio.

And they are.

Today's Sprint Cup drivers are expected to be as good in front of the camera as they are behind the wheel. They are as much models and actors as they are drivers, particularly during the offseason as sponsors finalize marketing campaigns for the upcoming season.

They work with some of the top professionals in Hollywood, as was the case on this day with director Stephen Gaghan, who won an Academy Award for writing the original screenplay for "Traffic."

"I never dreamed about signing autographs, doing commercials, being a pitchman," Petty said. "I dreamed about being a race car driver. That was my dream when I was 9 years old, never this.

"But our sport has always been driven by the marketing dollar. If you look at all sports, whether it's NASCAR or the NBA or NFL, all these guys become actors in some way or media stars in some way."

Today's NASCAR drivers spend countless hours in front of the camera doing things for which they've never had formal training. Matthew Davis, one of the actors hired for this shoot, was more than impressed.

He said without question the drivers could step into his shoes easier than he could theirs.

"It was fun to see how on their game they were," said Davis, who in a way felt more out of place than the drivers as he stepped into a NASCAR garage for the first time only a few days after completing a Burt Bacharach musical.

Davis didn't know the names of most of his fellow actors. He referred to Waltrip as the tall one and Petty as the one with the ponytail.

But he appreciated the ease and humor with which they handled the spotlight.

"You have to grow into it," Sadler said. "I was the shyest kid in the world growing up. I wouldn't stand up in front of my class to do any kind of current event or speaking. I did not want to be around any kind of public speaking.

"Now I could speak in front of anybody."

Good thing. Top-tier drivers often do five to 10 commercial shoots a year and sometimes that many photo shoots. They might spend eight to 10 hours a day in front of the camera, making the offseason as much of a grind as the 36-race schedule.

"Here we are mid-December and we're still all working," Stewart said with a sigh. "Today is my last day. There's guys that still have a full week next week. It's not an offseason. It's an off-track season, but there's no offseason for the drivers and teams."

Ask them whether it is more taxing to drive 600 miles around LMS as they do in the May race or spend a day shooting a commercial and to a man they'll pick the commercial.

"I'd rather do 1,200 miles," Burton said. "It's the waiting around that's hard. You're so used to everything being time structured. Two o'clock we do this. Three o'clock you do this.

"Here, you're supposed to be here at a certain time but you often don't know what you're going to do until you get here."

It was that way in particular on this day. Drivers were coaxed into believing they were shooting one commercial when they actually were shooting another, the director's hope of getting a more natural, ad-lib reaction.

"This wasn't something most of them had in mind when they were hoping to run the Daytona 500," said Susan Stribling, the director of communications for Coca-Cola North America.

Dale Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 champion who in 2003 did a commercial with Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Phil Mickelson, seconded that.

"No, I never dreamed I'd be doing this," he said. "I think all of us would say the same thing. All we wanted to do was drive a race car."

Action! Roll 'em ...
"Quiet please! Quiet please!" screamed a voice from the back of the set in a tone that was more demanding than polite.

"Scene No. 103, apple!" shouted another.

"Rolling!" another bellowed.

Davis, who looks like the white version of Manute Bol, walked onto the set. Stewart turned to Burton and whispered, "Where'd they get that guy? That guy needs a cheeseburger."

Drivers often cut up behind the scenes, and this day was no different. As Davis moved into position with another actor dressed in a Coke Zero can, Waltrip interjected, "Is this where we're supposed to like him? Sorry. I lost my focus."

It's easy to lose focus around this group, whose members often try to be comedians as well as actors.

I was the shyest kid in the world growing up. I wouldn't stand up in front of my class to do any kind of current event or speaking. I did not want to be around any kind of public speaking. Now I could speak in front of anybody.

-- Elliott Sadler

"If I looked like you I would cry every night, too," Stewart told one of the actors in the middle of a shoot.

Many of the commercials are written to show the lighter side of the drivers and their personalities. But some of the funniest moments are those that wind up on the cutting room floor.

"Sometimes we'll stop and laugh and it'll carry over five to 10 minutes," Stewart said.

Sadler had several of those moments last year while filming a Tylenol commercial with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Harvick. As the script called for, making him the butt of the commercial punch line, he referred to the drug's rapid relief as "rabbit relief."

"Kevin and I are pretty good friends," said Sadler in his deep southern Virginia accent that often gets more laughs than his lines. "When I'd say it and he'd say his line back I laughed and cried so many times, what should have taken 30 minutes took three hours."

The long hours aren't contained to commercials. Biffle arrived at Action Sports Photography on the Roush Fenway Racing campus at 7 a.m. last Tuesday and didn't leave until 5 p.m. after doing a photo shoot for sponsor 3M.

"The more we work with the guys the more we understand about their time constraints and the more they understand why we need the shots we need," photographer Walter G. Arce said.

"A lot of the new kids, they're coming up knowing it's gonna take this kind of work to get a job. Some of the older guys, like Sterling Marlin, he's from the old school. He just wants to get this stuff done. He understands the clients and sponsors need it, but it's not something he's looking forward to."

Light moments
There's a picture of Matt Kenseth riding a compressor like a bucking bronco. There's another of Carl Edwards being caught in a candid moment behind the dressing room curtain. There's another of Biffle with his boxer propped on the side of his car.

The walls of Action Photography are filled with pictures of funny moments behind the scenes.

"The best shots that we take the public never sees because they're so funny and goofy," Arce said. "Matt Kenseth is my absolute favorite. When I'm setting up for shots I'll never get a straight face from him. He gives me a raspberry or shuts his eyes. When I ask him to smile he'll get straight and serious.

"But when it comes to actually doing the shot he's a real professional."

Drivers often reject photo ideas so they maintain their professionalism in front of the public eye. Biffle once was asked to pose wearing nothing but red boxer shorts and holding a Grainger box in front of them so as to appear naked.

Stewart was asked to shave his legs. Burton was asked to do a hot tub scene.

Some drivers are so particular about their shoots that they won't do a hat scene until the very end for fear of messing up their hair even if the delay inconveniences the photographer.

"Regardless of what people say we all have some kind of ego," said Burton, not among those who are hat shy. "We all have a bit of vanity in us. When you do something like today, millions of people are going to look at you.

"I don't know that it's so much that you're trying to look good. You just want to look like yourself. Some of us want to look good. Some of us just don't want to look stupid."

Jamie McMurray agreed.

"When I first started doing stuff you would let people talk you into things that weren't you," he said during a break in the Coke Zero shoot. "Then you see them after they come out and you go, 'Man, I wish I hadn't done that.'

"After that happens a couple of times you realize after they take that photo you might have to live with that the rest of your life. It's good to be fun, but you want to be careful that you don't regret something you've done."

Not all off-the-wall shots are rejected. Biffle was featured last year in an ad for 3M with Post-its all over his driver's suit.

"You may have a hundred great shots, but it's that one shot that you're acting goofy, in a compromising situation, that they'll plaster everywhere," he said.

Arce thought of the Post-it idea in the middle of the night, but it wasn't his wildest idea. That came a few years ago when he jokingly suggested that the National Guard come up with an Apache helicopter to buzz Biffle for an ad.

"Two months later they called and said, 'OK, we have the Apache. What's a good day?'" Arce said. "My jaw just dropped."

A lot more dropped during the shoot outside of Roush Fenway Racing.

"We had Greg in position and we had the Apache in place," Arce said. "We gave the helicopter a hand signal and he buzzed us four or five times. The people at Roush thought we were under attack."

Not all shoots fall into place like that one. Arce had one shoot for Biffle and sponsor Subway in which a specially made sandwich was part of the scene.

"The driver was in the location and we're getting ready to shoot and we go, 'Where's the food?'" he recalled. "Well, one of the boys was sitting over there eating it."

Earnhardt factor
No driver is under demand more than Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver the past five years. He'll often spend 12 hours at a time in commercial or photo shoots.

His late father wasn't quite so obliging.

"When he was a part of the Coke deal we would have been in and out of here in three hours," Jarrett said of Earnhardt Sr. "He directed most of it. They had a director here, but he was telling them what we were going to do and what we weren't going to do.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.


"We don't have anybody that has that much horsepower anymore."

Jarrett recalled one shoot in particular at a Charlotte warehouse. The director had everything in place and was ready to shoot when Earnhardt interjected.

"He said, 'Look, this is how we're going to do this. This is how we are. This is going to be a lot better doing it the way I say we're doing it. And by the way, at 2 o'clock we're all leaving here,'" Jarrett recalled. "I'm telling you, before 2 o'clock we were all out of here.

"It doesn't work that way anymore."

But Earnhardt wasn't always so tough. Arce remembered a moment at Daytona in which his flash didn't fire while he was shooting the seven-time champion.

"I went to his PR guy and said, 'Hey, is there any possible way Dale can come back?'" he said. "[Earnhardt] heard me and said, 'What's wrong?' I said my lights didn't go off when I shot you. He said, 'C'mon.'

"We shot for a good five minutes. He said, 'Do you have everything you need?' I said, 'Yes sir,' and he walked off."

Foes to photos
Stewart continued telling Harvick about a midweek test in Las Vegas as makeup artists scurried to make them presentable. It wasn't long ago that they were at odds because Stewart bumped Harvick out of the way en route to a win at Indianapolis.

"The season is behind us," Stewart said. "Here we get to laugh and tell jokes and tell what we do in the offseason. It's like a bunch of guys hanging out at lunch talking."

For the most part the shoots are fun. Arce and Biffle became such good friends working together that Biffle was a part of Arce's wedding.

"The most difficult guys to work with are probably the guys that are strict on timelines," Arce said. "Like when we have Joe Gibbs in his time is very valuable. We probably have him for 20 minutes to half an hour, so we have everything set up before he comes in.

"We get him in and out so fast that usually he's got time to spare."

The worst part about shoots for most is spending eight hours for a 30-second clip.

"They're fun when they're over and you can say that you did it," McMurray said. "But it's always very tiring. People don't realize when they shoot a commercial or anything there's never one angle. You do the same role four or five times and they keep moving the cameras around and you try to act the exact same way you did before and it's not easy."

Some drivers naturally are better on camera just as they are on the track. Stewart is among that group, although it wasn't that way in the beginning.

"It took them a long time to get me to relax," he said of his first shoot. "Once you get into it you learn how to do it. There's a lot of schooling at first as you're going. You didn't go to class. The directors tell you what they want and as time goes on you figure it out."

They have to. To many multimillion dollar sponsors, how a driver performs on camera is just as important as how he performs on Sundays.

"You look at a lot of drivers 10, 15 years ago, once they established themselves as winners and stars then they were into it," Petty said. "These guys right off the bat from the very beginning are a part of it.

"Used to be you looked at it as, 'Man, you were on TV! You did a commercial!' Now you see us on TV all the time and it's no big deal."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.