DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kevin James fancies himself an everyman in his comedic roles. He’s worked as a mall cop and delivery driver. An unlucky zoo keeper and a retired police officer.
So it took the actor a moment to figure out how he might fit in a series set in a NASCAR garage.
“I don’t know how it would work as a comedy,” James said.
James said the light went off — or is it, the green flag of an idea dropped — when the show was framed as less about the inner workings of the industry and more about the relationships of a tight-knit racing team.
“It’s the same as anything else. It’s a workplace comedy, there’s family, it’s competitive,” James said. “It’s set on the greatest stage ever. It’s insane what NASCAR is.”
James stars as crew chief Kevin Gibson in Netflix’s new comedy series, “The Crew,” the latest in a line of NASCAR-themed TV shows and movies where the source material traditionally bordered on good ol’ boys satire or sensationalism rather than reality.
How the “The Crew” how will land in the finishing order among past vehicles like ” Days of Thunder,” “Talladega Nights,” “Cars,” “Stroker Ace” or even “Six Pack” remains to be seen but the stock car door is open for a contender.
“People who don’t love NASCAR will still love it because it’s about the characters,” James said.
James’ only taste of NASCAR growing up on Long Island, New York, were the highlights aired on ” Wide World of Sports ” that led him to doodle images of Richard Petty (“I remember the mustache, the glasses, the cowboy hat”) on school books. James later served as the grand marshal at a handful of NASCAR races, sometimes sharing duties with celebrity friends like Adam Sandler.
James plays an old-school crew chief for the fictional Bobby Spencer Racing team at odds with a new owner (Jillian Mueller) who wants to modernize the dysfunctional team. Much like offbeat sponsors of the past such as Lightning McQueen’s Dinoco, the team fields the No. 74 Fake Steak-sponsored car. NASCAR driver Reed Sorenson, driving for Spire Motorsports, raced last season at Michigan International Speedway in the Fake Steak car for footage featured in the series.
NASCAR cooperated with the project and James was coached for the role by long-time crew chief Tony Gibson. Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer are among the drivers who cameo on the show that debuts Monday.
“It’s supposed to be a lighthearted, funny, sitcom show in front of a live audience and I think they did good,” Blaney said. “They’re not really trying to make us look bad, they’re just doing something that I think it’s really gonna get people watching NASCAR.”
Jeff Lowell, a writer and producer of the show, t weeted the series would try and avoid the cliches that often paint NASCAR and its fans as simple-minded bumpkins or stereotypically Southern.
“Our goal is to not have it ring false to fans. And although ‘Talladega Nights’ was funny, that’s not at all the tone we’re going for,” he said.
Baseball, boxing, golf, most sports have scores of movies that fans can debate which is the best of the genre (“Field of Dreams” vs. “Bull Durham”). “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is the undisputed champ in the stock car racing niche thank to a fearless Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) who lived by the creed “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” The 2006 film followed Ricky Bobby as he went from a fervently clueless doofus to down-on-his luck driver to, well, a clueless doofus again, though with a tinge of humility. The movie spoofs everything from sponsorship — hello, Wonder Bread — to an unsophisticated fan base that counts dinner at Applebee’s as a big night out. So what if the movie didn’t exactly paint NASCAR in the most flattering light? Ferrell’s vulgar shake `n’ bake charm helped “Talladega Nights” rake in $163 million.
“DAYS OF THUNDER”
“He didn’t slam you, he didn’t bump you, he didn’t nudge you… he ‘rubbed’ you. And rubbin’, son, is racin’.” – crew chief Harry Hogge.
Tom Cruise made NASCAR sexy as Cole Trickle. “Days of Thunder” was a critically panned summer blockbuster that was largely lampooned throughout the NASCAR industry for its exaggeration and overindulgence. But it developed a cult-like following and today’s drivers grew up with a fondness for the movie. Pitbull, NASCAR’s newest team owner, credited the 1990 flick with igniting his interest in the sport.
“I’ve been a fan of NASCAR since the movie ‘Days of Thunder’ when I got a chance to see what it was about,” he said.
Richard Petty voiced Strip “The King” Weathers and Darrell Walrip called the action as Darrell Cartrip in the animated film that followed the tale of Lightning McQueen and his good pal, Mater, on a NASCAR-inspired circuit. McQueen starts as a selfish car in his pursuit of the Piston Cup and finds a detour through Radiator Springs is what he needs to change his ways and put the town back on the map — and get “The King” pushed to victory lane. Life-size, character look-alikes of the “Cars” cars were parked at Daytona in 2017 to promote “Cars 3.” (Let’s just not discuss “Cars 2.”)