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NASCAR Line Curves Into Women's Fashion

Racing group has a deal with a Van Nuys firm to expand brand into mainstream.

May 26, 2003|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Diane Sweet was perched atop a motor home at the third turn of the California Speedway in Fontana when the cars raced past her in a deafening blur.

The 39-year-old mother of three was hooked.

It was "exhilarating, exuberating," she says, reliving that moment three years ago. She recalls being "in awe of the cars and how fast they go, and the adrenaline rush you get just watching."

Now, the apparel industry is betting that women like Sweet are ready to move from watching to wearing.

The National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing has struck a licensing deal with Van Nuys clothing manufacturer Jerry Leigh Inc. to make NASCAR-branded clothes for women -- including pants, shorts, shirts and mini-skirts -- and funnel them into the mainstream. The for-profit enterprise, based in Daytona Beach, Fla., says that 40% of its 75 million fans are women.

Retail behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc. began selling the NASCAR line in women's and plus sizes in some of its stores earlier this year. Kmart Corp. also carries the line. And specialty and department store chains, including Sears, Roebuck & Co., are testing the brand in juniors sizes.

To attract other retailers, including specialty stores such as Hot Topic Inc. and Charlotte Russe Holding Inc., Jerry Leigh is developing other NASCAR-branded juniors products that are trendier and higher priced.

If this seems like a stretch to the fashionistas, NASCAR watchers say there's a ready market for such products.

More than one-third of American women over the age of 11 consider themselves "fans" of the sport, according to an ESPN poll released last month. Mike May, a spokesman for Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. International in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which commissioned the survey, noted that more than 11% fell into the "avid fan" category. That means they go to races, watch races on TV and know the drivers.

Vendors in New York recently showed racing-themed clothes in their back-to-school and holiday lines, including jumpsuits that looked like something a professional driver might wear. Dirt bike-inspired apparel, such as tight-fitting leather jackets and satin bomber jackets, also are showing up in young women's fashions.

Trying to Stay Ahead of the Teen Fashion Curve

Teen retailers including Gadzooks Inc. and Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. have racing brands in their stores. "It's one of the themes emerging for fall," said Elizabeth Pierce, an analyst with Sanders Morris Harris.

Among the key reasons: Women want clothes they can feel comfortable wearing all day, said Marshall Cohen, a retail analyst with market research firm NPD Group. And apparel designers are taking cues from lifestyle trends, including all types of athletics, which increasingly appeal to women.

According to NPD Group, while total women's apparel sales fell 6% last year, sales of women's sports logo apparel jumped 24%. "We have today Annika Sorenstam playing golf on a men's tour," Cohen said. "There's not a gender barrier anymore, and women are taking it to the limit."

Still, some observers are skeptical about the new Jerry Leigh line, given that fans typically buy products linked to a favorite driver -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon -- and not the NASCAR brand itself.

"The NASCAR logo is not the primary draw," said Marty Brochstein, executive editor of the Licensing Letter in New York. "That's one of the questions in my mind as to how well, ultimately, this will do."

Jerry Leigh, which is building the line incrementally as retailers assess demand, says that sales so far have surpassed expectations. It won't disclose exact figures, however. The company plans to expand distribution to sporting goods stores next year.

As long as the clothes are cute enough, Diane Sweet said, she'll probably buy them. "But I think apparel related directly to the driver would sell better with women," the Rancho Cucamonga resident added.

Sweet's 17-year-old daughter, Nacole, who unlike her two brothers is also an auto racing fan, grumbles that products sold at the track are too expensive. She'd be happy to buy NASCAR clothes at Wal-Mart prices -- but only if they are stylish and "flatter a girl."

The Wal-Mart line includes cropped pants, short skirts and scooped-neck shirts, often in red and black, with the NASCAR brand and bar logo, and jersey shorts with "Speedway" printed across the rear.

Flashier offerings include sleeveless T-shirts with "Hotstuff" across the chest or flames shooting up the front. Checkered flags adorn some items, along with messages such as "Who's your driver?" -- the burning question at any NASCAR track.

Many women have poured money into accessories and knickknacks as a way of supporting the drivers.

Sherry Tenant is a die-hard Mark Martin fan, and she has T-shirts, a baseball cap, license plate holder, coffee mug and mouse pad to prove it. The Pocola, Okla., resident also has a computer mouse shaped like Martin's Ford Taurus and a coffee mug with "Viagra" on it (Pfizer, the drug's maker, is Martin's sponsor).

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