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NASCAR Hopes You Laugh at Its New Netflix Sitcom

Autoweek logo Autoweek 3/12/2021 Matt Weaver
Sarah Stiles, Dan Ahdoot, Kevin James, Freddie Stroma posing for the camera: The sanctioning body is also working towards a Drive to Survive style documentary. © Netflix The sanctioning body is also working towards a Drive to Survive style documentary.

Jeff Lowell wants you to laugh with NASCAR, and not at it, when watching‘The Crew’ on Netflix.

That’s the key takeaway from his new workplace sitcom, which stars Kevin James of‘The King of Queens’ as old school crew chief Kevin Gibson -- the leader of a struggling single-car operation thrown into chaos when its traditionally-minded team owner retires and hands off the team to his Stanford educated daughter portrayed by Jillian Mueller.

In addition to Mueller, James stars alongside British actor Freddie Stroma, the team’s dimwitted driver, Gary Anthony Williams as the sarcastic car chief, Dan Ahdoot as the pitiful race day engineer and Sarah Stiles as the blunt office manager.

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In the era of Drive to Survive, an epic Netflix episodic documentary about Formula 1, this wasn’t the content fans immediately wanted when it heard NASCAR had reached an agreement to produce content for the over-the-top streaming service.

Additionally, fans were afraid they would be treated to something similar to‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.’

While supplying a hearty amount of laughter, the Will Farrell film also existed purely to deliver the comedy at the expense of NASCAR rather than to its benefit. The sport continues to stave off some of its worst stereotypes as a result of that film.

Shake and Bake, anyone?

Showrunner Jeff Lowell (The Ranch) insists that he grew up a casual fan of the sport and was mindful of the fan base when crafting its punchlines and situational comedies.

"From the beginning, before I wrote a single word, I went to Charlotte and visited three or four shops," Lowell told Autoweek."But it was important to spend some time with a couple of smaller teams too. They were incredibly generous with their time, told us to follow-up with them if we needed their perspective on anything.

"That was our process, because our jokes came out of those conversations, because they were rooted in the real-life situations. That’s at the root of a sitcom, right?

"But I can’t think of one thing that came at the expense of the sport. Our characters have flaws, but they’re human flaws and not NASCAR flaws."

Lowell says the show was"heavily vetted" and part of that process fell into the domain of Matt Summers -- NASCAR’s director of entertainment marketing and content development.

That’s a fancy way of saying that he is responsible for all efforts to intertwine NASCAR into the larger pop culture zeitgeist and booking its personalities on mainstream forums. The idea is to create awareness for the sport while spotlighting its biggest stars.

Cup Series contenders Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Cole Custer each made cameos during the first season.

"That's a big thing of what we do out of the LA group, highlighting our drives in different forms of content," Summers said."But having them appear also lends credibility and brings the show into the real world of NASCAR.

"We would have liked to have had more drivers, but COVID complicated those efforts. We wanted to shoot at a real NASCAR race, too, but the same challenges presented itself.

"That's to say nothing of being able to highlight our sponsors, having Goodyear tires on the set, all things that lend credibility and made it look and feel like a real team shop."

Stephen McGee wearing a hat and glasses: gettyimages-1289791737 © Jeff Hahne - Getty Images gettyimages-1289791737

Blaney, especially, received rave reviews for his self-portrayal on screen. He enjoyed the experience, even though he couldn’t stop laughing during the takes.

"Kevin James is amazing and he's a super nice guy," Blaney said."They did a great job of researching the sport. It's a comedy but they're not making fun of us at all. They make jokes, but it's all in good fun."

Lowell said it was important to surround himself with racing fans and car aficionados in general when staffing‘The Crew.’ He had a similar approach when working on‘The Ranch.’ The show was widely acclaimed and ran for four seasons.

Most of his viewers didn’t grow up on a farm, but Lowell held himself to a quality control that applied to the NASCAR comedy as well.

He needed the nuances to feel authentic or the jokes wouldn’t land.

"It was a broad comedy and funny things happened, but we got the ranching, right," Lowell said."No rancher ever watched us and was like,'that's now how this works,' and that was important to us.

"We spent a lot of time making sure certain things were right that most people wouldn't have ever noticed. That's the philosophy we carried over into here."

Ultimately, NASCAR fans still crave the documentary style content in the same spirit as Formula 1 Drive t Survive and Summers says his office is working to satiate that hunger.

"That's a big priority for us," Summer said."And that's something that I feel NASCAR productions does better than any other sports league production is the kind of docu-style behind the scenes similar to Hard Knocks.

"I think the MotorTrend series (Under Pressure) is exceptional. I think that's something our fans want to see more of us. So, we have a lot of different projects in various stages of development that will highlight the real teams, drivers, the competition element of the sport itself.

"Some things are close to coming into production and other things take a little bit of time."

In the meanwhile, Lowell hopes you laugh at'The Crew,' and not at the sport it is portrayed to be a part of.

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