Harlequin His the Racetrack
NASCAR Romances a Hit with Fans
By Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News, June 21, 2006
Let’s just say “In the Groove” is a racy novel.
Sarah is a former kindergarten teacher forced to take a job driving the bus of jet-setting and, predictably, super-sexy NASCAR driver Lance. She’s unimpressed with his fame but, according to the back cover, “whenever he comes near her she turns hot as race fuel.”
And, of course, the spark plugs fly.
Yes, the prose is overheated — but then that’s precisely the idea. The brainchild of Pamela Britton, a graduate of San Jose’s Pioneer High School, “In the Groove” is the first collaboration between NASCAR and Harlequin.
Welcome to romance in the pits.
“When they first told me that there was going to be a Harlequin romance novel about NASCAR, I said, `You’ve got to be kidding,’ ” said driver Carl Edwards, who will race in Sunday’s Dodge/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma.
“But I’ve since seen women at the racetrack, sitting there, reading these books. So if you’re going to be reading a romance book, you might as well read about auto racing.”
Somebody’s reading it. Released in February, “In the Groove” had a first printing of 200,000 copies. Britton’s second book, “On the Edge,” comes out in the fall, and she is working on a third. There are plans for about two dozen NASCAR romance novels by various authors.
Britton, 40, a longtime race fan and self-taught writer, also is a symbol of how successfully NASCAR has barreled into popular culture. Britton said she even signed more autographs than driver Jeff Gordon at this year’s Daytona 500.
“I’m just your average, ordinary, everyday person who got lucky in this publishing thing,” Britton said. “And to hear so many people talking about this just blows my mind. Women have embraced the book, and their husbands have, too.”
Macho NASCAR gearheads reading romance books? That, Britton believes, is the secret of her success.
Finding the right gear
Stock car racing and steamy romance stories ought to mix like, well, Chevys and Fords. NASCAR traditionally has been a mostly Southern male thing — a testosterone-fueled world of beer and motor oil.
But the sport now has a wide, and growing, audience. NASCAR’s annual foray to Infineon Raceway is Northern California’s biggest one-day sporting event. The TV ratings are second only to the NFL’s, and among its 75 million fans are 30 million women.
From Harlequin’s perspective, the women of “NASCAR Nation” represent an untapped market.
“I know people think this is funny, but we’ve had love stories set in hospitals, in war time, and all over the world,” Harlequin spokeswoman Marleah Stout said. “So why not in NASCAR, too?”
That’s an idea Britton had been pitching for years.
She always loved racing, competing in BMX as a kid and later graduating to drag racing (she reached speeds of more than 120 mph in her 1967 Camaro in local events). She also worked as a scorer for NASCAR truck races.
But Britton, who had attended college for just a year and was working in a San Jose commercial real-estate office (Borelli Investment Company), also harbored a desire to write — a dream inadvertently inspired by her first husband.
“My ex didn’t think I had the ability to write books, so he kind of challenged me to do it,” she said.
A reader of romance novels, she decided to try writing one in 1996. Two years later she sold a historical love story and a career was born. Among her 15 books are titles such as “Cowboy Trouble,” “Seduced” and “Enchanted by Your Kisses.” Over the years, she also kept working on racing stories.
“But I couldn’t sell them to save my life because nobody on the West Coast knew what NASCAR was,” Britton said.
Then last year Harlequin published her stock car book “Dangerous Curves.” Britton encouraged the publisher to contact NASCAR about licensing a series of racing stories. NASCAR, which had expanded into unlikely areas such as women’s fashion and housewares, went lug nuts.
“In the Groove” follows the standard Harlequin formula of a plucky heroine and hunky guy who, in this case, meet when he literally drives into her. The cover, complete with NASCAR’s logo, disguises the fact that it’s a romance novel. (Hint: There’s no Fabio.)
“It looks like a guy book,” Britton said. “Now when you turn it over, you can see it’s a romance. But it has not stopped guys from reading this book.”
Britton said the romance novelists who find mainstream success attract some male readership. She believes her books do that with their accurate portrayals of the sport.
“The thing men like is that I get stuff right about the technical parts of racing,” she said. “I take pride in the fact that I can tell you what gear a car will be in coming off pit road into Turn Two at Dover. If I don’t know, I call up Doug.”
That would be Doug Richert, the crew chief for driver Greg Biffle. Britton and Richert, a Saratoga native who attended Lynbrook High School, have been friends for years.
“As she would get ideas for her books and tell me about them, I would say, `Well, I would do it like this,’ ” Richert said. “She really wanted to make sure it sounded like she knew what she was talking about. She was even in Charlotte with us at this past Coca-Cola 600 just sitting in the garage taking notes.”
Because Britton also has a growing number of teenage readers, she makes sure her NASCAR books are PG-13. The off-the-track action, so to speak, happens behind closed doors.
The romance novel idea has caught on so well in NASCAR that Edwards even has a cameo in an upcoming book written by another author.
“I don’t get the girl, but I’m helping the guy get the girl,” Edwards said.
Her own victory lane
What Britton got is a very nice lifestyle.
Outgoing with an easy laugh, she lives in the town of Cottonwood, near Redding, on a 15-acre ranch with her husband and their 5-year-old daughter. She hasn’t lost her drive — writing about 20 pages a day while sitting in a coffee shop.
Britton’s husband, Michael Baer, will chide her playfully not to get a big head when she travels in NASCAR country because now she is recognized. But back home, most people don’t know what she does.
If anyone speaks ill of the romance novel genre to her, though, they will probably get an earful.
“Whenever I get a question about writing `those’ books, I always ask if they ever watch `those’ movies, like `Sleepless in Seattle,’ ” said Britton, who will be signing books at Infineon this weekend. “Everybody likes romance, and I’m very proud of what I do.”
The novel she’s writing now is about an aerospace engineer who is thrown into the NASCAR world and falls for a team owner.
“But I’m halfway through, and I’ve really started to like the driver,” Britton said. “So now I’m thinking that maybe she should end up with him instead. He’s kind of a Kurt Busch type,” referring to one of NASCAR’s bad boys. “So I’m not sure yet.”
Either way, the motors will be revving.
Contact Mark Emmons at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5745.