For Miss Sprint Cup, Mugging Is Working
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Fort Worth, Texas – Surely you have seen her on the TV, jockeying for position during the typical NASCAR Victory Lane celebration scrum.
Lurking. Miss Sprint Cup always is lurking…albeit with a perpetual smile, augmented by the occasional shuffle and the well-timed head-nod.
Don’t try these subtle moves while standing atop your Winnebago, NASCAR Nation. Miss Sprint Cup – aka Monica Palumbo – is a trained professional. And her charming sense of humanity, and humor, might prompt you to reconsider the definition of “eye-candy” next time you see that woman wearing the basic black Sprint fire suit.
“I wear it at every event, even today at the FanFest,” Palumbo said during a mid-summer promotional visit with NASCAR fans at Texas Motor Speedway . “Everyone else is here in their normal clothes, and you saw A.J. Allmendinger in his jeans and t-shirt. I’m here in the fire suit. But that’s what the fans see in Victory Lane, too. That’s recognizable and we’re an ambassador for the sport for Sprint.”
For the record, there are two Miss Sprint Cups currently working the circuit – Palumbo and Anne Marie Rhodes. “And yes,” Palumbo said, “I feel that Anne and I kind of have to work extra hard to prove that we’re knowledgeable about the sport and that we are not here just to stand and smile.”
Palumbo and Rhodes alternate race weekends, although the ladies double-teamed the festivities leading up to and after the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Did you see where Palumbo joined race-winner Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team in the traditional kissing of the Yard of Bricks?
All part of the job description. At Indy, Palumbo also interviewed team-owner Richard Petty, NASCAR’s acknowledged King, during her typical three-day weekend. During the typical week, she also stays connected with fans via social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
“The last Texas race, I was in town for the whole week,” said Palumbo, referring to the Samsung 500 at TMS in April. “At the Samsung headquarters we did a charity event. A lot of people wonder…’Do they fly these girls in just for Victory Lane? To stand there? Really?’ We get that a lot, just because that’s the only thing they see.
“We’re ambassadors for the sport. We get to interview drivers at different locations at the track and interview the celebrities that are in town for the weekend. But we spend a lot of our time at what’s called The Sprint Experience out on the midway. Talk on the microphone, hang out with the race fans, introduce them to Sprint’s new products. And we help out with driver introductions, the pre-race show and do appearances during the race. And of course, the one thing that people see is Victory Lane.”
Attractive ladies gracing Victory Lane traces its documented history to 1971, when R.J. Reynolds’ Winston cigarette brand became the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top division – the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Division. A succession of Miss Winstons – some more well-endowed and scantily-clad than others – posed and got cozy and planted kisses on grimy winning drivers through November 2003, when RJR exited the sport and was replaced by communications giant Nextel .
With the exception of the hot pants and heels, the job qualifications outlined for Miss Winston basically mirror those of Miss Sprint Cup. As a public relations spokesperson for RJR, Miss Winston’s duties included meeting and greeting drivers, crew members, NASCAR personnel, corporate sponsors, dignitaries, guest and fans at Cup events. Pre-and post-race duties also are similar.
“Sprint started the program at the end of 2007…they just wanted to see how the fans would react to bringing the program back,” said Palumbo, 28. “And it became full-on last year. Anne has been around a little longer than me. They brought me on at the Bristol race (in mid-March) last year.”
Miss Winston was selected after a series of candidate interviews conducted by a modeling and talent agency, and RJR brass. Palumbo, born and raised in the heart of NASCAR country in Charlotte, N.C., took a circuitous route to her current job. Palumbo began acting and promotional work at age 20. In 2001, she was crowned Miss North Carolina and selected Miss Congeniality in that year’s Miss USA competition.
“Obviously, I’ve been around racing forever,” said Palumbo, who attended East Carolina University and was graduated from California State University at Northridge with a degree in theatre. ”I moved out to California and pursued that for years and fell into NASCAR.
“ I’d never thought I’d be involved in the sport until an opportunity came about in ’07. I did marketing for Bobby Labonte’s sponsor, Dollar General. Fell in love with the sport and heard they (Sprint) were opening this program back up. Sent my resume in and they called me in for an interview. There was no ‘pageantry’ involved. I did Miss North Carolina years ago and the pageant days are over.”
Palumbo said she is certain some view the Miss Sprint Cup program _ along with the idea of beauty pageants _ as demeaning toward women and an anachronism. “Oh, absolutely,” she said, “just because of the name ‘beauty pageant.’ But not with this job. They really transformed this program. With the Miss Winstons _ not to downplay their job because they obviously had a great job _ but I’m wearing a fire suit. We don’t have heels on. And tons of makeup and hair up to here is not for (this program).”
Palumbo said her contract is a “two-to-three-year deal” and the pay and perks are very good. “It’s allowed me pay my mortgage and not have to worry too bad,” Palumbo said. “You get in for a few years and you make it a stepping stone for the next job. But I would like to stay in the sport and have some longevity in it. Now that I’m here, I’m hoping that this is my calling. I just love the history about the sport and would love to pursue pit reporting, or host a motorsports show because I really enjoy the sport and the people involved. Hopefully I’ll stick around, if they’ll let me.”
Her perks involve travel to tracks historic and new from coast-to-coast. “I get to travel to all these places I would never have been able had I not been in this position,” Palumbo said. “So I’m very fortunate at the moment.”
Some of those moments, she admitted, can be awkward. Case in point, an interview Palumbo once conducted with a genuine Cup heartthrob.
“You know, we all have those days when we’re ‘on,’ and those days when we’re ‘off,’^” Palumbo said. “I remember one time I was interviewing Kasey Kahne and he had his sunglasses on. And this lady kept saying, ‘Take your sunglasses off. I want to see those baby blues.’ So I had the microphone and I said, ‘Kasey, will you take your sunglasses off? This lady over here wants to see your baby blues.’ He was like, ‘I can’t today.’ He’s just a doll in person. Just flawless. The women go crazy over him.”
Fans of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon know that he met his first wife, Brooke Sealy, during her reign as a Miss Winston. However, Palumbo said dating drivers is strictly verboten for Miss Sprint Cup. “Yeah, they want to keep it very professional,” she said. “Definitely friends and acquaintances, we see ‘em at the track. But no, definitely no dating.”
Back to Miss Sprint Cup’s office – Victory Lane. Isn’t it awkward to be standing there among all that euphoria, in silence?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Palumbo said. “Because your instinct is to want to get in there and say something. Sometimes I think I’m going to get hit by a Coke bottle or a Gatorade bottle. Or Budweiser or whatever. Sometimes you’re thinking, ‘A Gatorade bottle is about to hit me in the head at any moment.’ I mean, we get soaked, but I’ve never been hit in the head with a Gatorade bottle. Be good TV though!
“And people come up to us and are like, ‘We see you back there smiling. What are you smiling at?’ So I let them know that we’re aware of – I’ve named it – ‘The Shuffle.’ We shuffle to get in the camera. It’s like, obviously, we’ve got to get that Sprint logo in there. That’s our main job in Victory Lane – other than congratulating the driver.
“But also, people come up to us and they say, ‘You can’t hear what they’re saying. What are you laughing at back there?’ Really, I’m standing a foot or two feet away from Mark Martin (or whomever) so I can hear everything they say. But from the camera’s perspective, it looks like we’re 10 feet away. We nod and we agree with what they’re saying, so we’ve been known as ‘The Bobbleheads.’ Maybe we can get like a bobblehead doll out or something. Seriously. When you become a bobblehead – that’s big-time.”
Palumbo said she and Rhodes are not above making fun of themselves. “You’ve got to make fun of yourself,” she said, “because sometimes I’m like, ‘Blink Monica! Don’t stand back there like dazed and confused.’ That’s why I say maybe one day a Gatorade bottle will hit me in the head and they’ll know we’re human.”
Palumbo said she truly enjoys the human element – the diverse folks – who make up NASCAR Nation’s weekly travelling circus. “I love it,” Palumbo said. “I feel like NASCAR fans are very loyal and passionate people. So, every weekend I meet these people who have saved up and this is their one weekend vacation. Or maybe they have two vacations out of the year and they choose to come to the racetrack. So the people that I meet are just good old, hard-working people and I like to be in that sort of environment. I feel more at home. And I know a lot of the tracks are trying to work around the economic difficulties with package deals…and personally, I would like to see more people enjoy their lives and enjoy the sport.”
That said, some fans have been known to get carried away when they find themselves within pawing distance of Miss Sprint Cup.
“There have been times where men go in for a picture and they like pick me up, or they’ll try to kiss me,” Palumbo said. “Just race fans… ‘Hey let me get a picture!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’ll throw me over their shoulder. I’m like, ‘You going to buy me dinner tonight or what?’ Yeah, there’s some crazy things that happen at the track. Sometimes people want me to take a picture with random things. Like this guy had a fake taco that he took around to places and had people take pictures with his fake…he called it his Demo Taco. And I thought that was really bizarre. That was an awkward moment. Yeah, his taco was not too big.
“I’m like, ‘Hey mom, this is what I’m doing this weekend.’ ”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments