By Cole Cusumano
It’s not a stretch to assume NASCAR has a specific perception among the general public. The times of reveling in the reputation amassed from Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder are long gone. It’s been 15 years since the sport was widely represented in pop culture on the silver screen with Will Ferrell and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, albeit in the form of mockery.
While the divisive comedy exposed audiences to sanctioned stock car racing and took the top-spot at the box office opening weekend, it lacked one major element — authenticity.
In an attempt to rebrand its current image, NASCAR is sticking to comedy, but exchanging the “shake and bake” for a sense of realism with Netflix’s The Crew starring television icon Kevin James.
James, who admits he didn’t have much knowledge of NASCAR, used to be a casual Richard Petty fan when living in Long Island; citing he used to draw 43s, cowboy hats, mustaches and baby-blue cars on his school books. The Emmy Award winning actor gained an appreciation for the sport in 2007 after attending his first race as a grand marshal.
Since then, James developed a respect for NASCAR and was adamant on the new sitcom being factually relevant.
“NASCAR was crazy responsible and helpful in developing [The Crew] to the point where it wouldn’t work without them,” James told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “They’ve been working with us, because they believe in the show and they know we respect the sport.
“It’s just been a great relationship.”
James’ character Kevin Gibson is modeled after veteran crew chief Tony Gibson, who had a strong presence on set in terms of pointing out flaws and increasing credibility in portraying how to run a race team. Jessie, played by Paris Berelc, is an up-and-coming female driver who displays a characteristic blend of Hailie Deegan and Natalie Decker.
In addition to using the physical brand, Executive Producer and Managing Director for Entertainment Marketing and Content Development for NASCAR, Matt Summers, oversaw the scripts, secured cameos and even got clearance to wrap Reed Sorenson’s car during an event at Michigan International Speedway last year. Richard Childress Racing played a pivotal role in providing everything from pit boxes, cars and tools to capture the likeness of a functioning race shop.
“We have real cars in the garage on set that they send us — those are $300,000, $400,000 cars , it’s crazy,” James shared.
There’s also an emphasis on time pertinent topics ranging from NASCAR’s youth movement, the sponsorship side and team camaraderie. Not to mention, there are frequent references to drivers, teams and tracks that will satisfy any fan.
As for additional star-power, Ryan Blaney is one of numerous drivers to make a cameo in The Crew. The driver of the No. 12 grew up watching James’ hit sitcom The King of Queens with his father, but he may have watched it too much. James and his castmates were stunned by Blaney’s comedic timing and comfortability, jokingly calling it “annoying” how much of a natural he was.
“It was great to work with Kevin (James), he’s an incredibly nice guy,” Blaney told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “All the writers were great people, the director (Andy Fickman) was awesome and they made us feel at home. We didn’t really feel like outsiders, even though we are in that world.”
Blaney was impressed by the accuracy presented on set and chimed in on the preconceived notions of NASCAR potentially being portrayed as a mockery again.
“They did a really good job of gathering research and talking to a lot of teams,” Blaney said. “I appreciated the work they put into it and I think that’s what you gotta do. They’re not going in blind and making us into a bad stereotype. They poke fun, but it doesn’t have any ill intent.”
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year, Cole Custer, also makes a brief appearance and supplied his endorsement for the show.
“It brings more awareness to our sport,” Custer told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Having a show on Netflix, I think it’s all a good thing and to have an actor like Kevin James involved with [NASCAR], I don’t think there’s any downside to it.”
In terms of branching out to a new audience, selecting Netflix as the distributor for The Crew could not have been a better fit. The streaming titan currently delivers content to 204 million subscribers, with a projected six-million additional in the first quarter of 2021, due to COVID-19 and the absence of the theater experience. Not only does Netflix have an expansive reach to millions of people, but the allure of a knowledgeable, family-friendly comedy with one of the most recognizable Hollywood actors presents its own benefits.
The bottom line is, authenticity was a focal point in developing The Crew, and it was made with the intent of balancing tension and competitiveness with laughter.
The Crew stars Kevin James, who plays a crew chief that butts heads with a newly appointed team owner (Jillian Mueller) set on implementing a new culture and technology for a long-standing race team. The sitcom also stars Paris Berelc, Freddie Stroma and Sarah Stiles, and begins streaming on Netflix February 15 — the day after the Daytona 500. Check out the trailer below.