Originally created 03/12/98

Drivers mix with the NFL



Trace Armstrong looked like a little kid, his eyes shining and his hands fidgeting as he waited for Darrell Waltrip to turn his way.

Finally, Waltrip finished signing autographs for a group of fans and, smiling, turned to the waiting Armstrong, a defensive end for the Miami Dolphins.

"It was great," Armstrong said. "Darrell didn't really know who I was, but he gave me some time, telling a couple of jokes and making us feel real at home."

Armstrong was in the garage area at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend in his role as president of the NFL Players Association.

He and Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA and president of Players Inc., were spreading the word about the organization's new role as a sponsor for the cars of NASCAR's Petty Enterprises team.

But Armstrong was simply enjoying the opportunity to rub elbows with Winston Cup drivers and officials.

"The thing I've noticed is these guys are fans of each other," Allen said. "To the drivers, the players are celebrities. To the players, the drivers are celebrities. Everybody is having fun with it."

Armstrong, a 6-foot-4, 266-pounder with a boyish face, knows exactly the demands being made on drivers even when they're away from the track.

"At the Players Inc. Super Bowl party in San Diego, we had Kyle and Richard Petty as our guests," Armstrong said. "I had all kinds of guys coming up and asking me to introduce them to Kyle or to the King."

So how did this unlikely combination of race car drivers and football players come together?

"We were looking for new ways to market our company and our products," like clothing, souvenirs and trading cards, Allen said. "We looked into it demographically, and we think we share a lot of the same fans with NASCAR.

"We're in the business of building a brand, essentially, and this really seemed a perfect fit for us."

Another thing that attracted the football folks to NASCAR was the unusual interaction between drivers and fans.

As NASCAR president Bill France Jr. likes to point out, the stock car sport is the only one where spectators are allowed to be in the locker room (the garage area) before and after the game.

"That's an important aspect of it, but we're looking for ways to interact with our fans," Armstrong said. "We're out there with suits of armor on when we're playing.

"This is one way to get the helmets off the guys and get them together with the fans. We want to show people we're not just performers. We're real people, too."