"Nascar is like a cross between Woodstock and Lollapalooza and the Iowa State Fair," Mario Batali says from behind a pair of sunglasses. On a Saturday morning in May, Batali tends to the grill, slathering pork chops with a spicy blood-orange barbecue sauce while Michael Waltrip, a Nascar driver who will be racing this evening, watches. Batali's strawberry-blond ponytail pokes out from under a Lowe's Motor Speedway baseball hat. The author of a new cookbook, Mario Tailgates Nascar Style, Batali has come to Charlotte, North Carolina, to cook for some race-car owners and drivers. His temporary home in Charlotte is a tricked-out RV (a few vehicles down from R&B singer Usher's) in a VIP section of the speedway's infield, an undulating asphalt sea crowded with fans who have paid to park here. In the days leading up to tonight's Nextel All-Star Challenge, everyone has been tailgating, throwing an extended party that has become as essential to the sport as the races themselves.
Batali and Nascar would be a match made in Heaven, if Heaven were in the business of co-branding and cross-promotion. Nascar would like to ditch its moonshine-running, redneck reputation, and with that goal has recently made forays into luxury trackside condos and RVs with plasma TVs like the one loaned to Batali in Charlotte. At the same time, Batali, who combines New York City foodie cred (Babbo, Del Posto) with mass-market appeal (Food Network), continues to establish his own brand, and Nascar, with 75 million American fans and counting, is a surefire way to expand his reach. In the first month after its release in April, Mario Tailgates became the fastest-selling of Batali's five cookbooks, moving 75,000 copies.
Batali has also teamed up with a Mississippi company to bring out a Nascar-endorsed line of barbecue sauces. He has plenty of other food partners, too. Even his wife and two sons, who are attending a Nascar race for the first time, can't keep up with it all. "Dad, you have a sausage?" nine-year-old Benno asks plaintively, after spotting a package of Salsiccia Pugliese with his father's ponytailed mug on the label. "Why didn't you tell me?"