tampabay.com

New face of IndyCar promotion familiar, just without rock-star makeup

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 2, 2006


Gene Simmons made his bones as the co-founder and bassist for 1970s phenomenon KISS. There was the make-up, the platform boots and of course, the tongue. Now, Simmons dresses in marketing-magnate cool, the occasional pair of expensive something-skin boots included. He has been ever-present the past two weeks with his promotions company in cahoots with the IRL. Times staff writer Brant James spent 10 sublime minutes March 24 walking pit road with Simmons at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the occasional pit stop.

So, why are you doing this?

Well, this is about people. It's the American ideal of "of the people for the people, by the people." Most entities forget that the real bosses aren't here. We're the ones with the fancy shades and names and all that, but you look out there (in empty stands) and the more we realize, you with your newspapers, and me with what I do with our drivers, we have everything to give back to the fans. We need to share with them these rock stars in rocketships - who risk their lives at 220 mph by the way.

Why the IRL?

I've been involved with NASCAR and the NHL. They're fantastic outfits, but this is the big stuff. This is the stuff that makes you realize that going 150 mph on NASCAR races are great, but I can do that in my car.

Do you?

I won't. But I can. I can't get anywhere near these guys. These wings aren't there for show. They're meant to keep these cars on the ground or they would take off. It's lunacy. We were hired - Look at the pretty girl. You think we can walk over there? (Simmons introduces himself to a TV reporter; when introduced to the pit spotter, he begins dancing with her. A pit crew member approaches, has Simmons sneak over the pit wall and next to driver P.J. Chesson - still in the car - for a photo.)

So anyway, you've talked a lot about bringing these drivers to the fans. Who here can you make a rock star?

Tony Kanaan's got a big mouth, and we need to get him out there. (Dan) Wheldon is a great idea and he's more sort of, uh, whitebread. People need to get vested in the people, not the machines. ... But unless you understand the face and the heartbeat behind it, you can't vest your emotions. And ultimately it's about emotion. If your brain (grasps my head, evangelical style) doesn't connect to your heart (grasps for my heart), you got nothing, but if your brain (head again) connects to your heart (pokes again) then, man, you're on to something.

So how?

Here's my impression of a NASCAR race and an Indy race. Ready? (Stands erect, swivels head from right to left as if following a tennis lob; resets head, snaps it left like following a fastball.) See?

Gotcha.