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Hook, Line & Sinker

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like many of the world's most inspired ideas, this one came to Derek Wright in a dream, which begs the question of what he ate before bedtime on that summer night in Mississippi.

"I had this little dream going about bass fishing and dadgum NASCAR racing," Wright says, and he awakened in the dead of night to sketch his vision on a napkin. It was a big ugly bass painted to resemble a NASCAR race car, and when his buddy Tony Taylor translated the sketch into reality, their friends did nothing but laugh.

Wright and Taylor are the ones laughing now. They've got a NASCAR licensing agreement, a flashy Web site (www.fastbass.com) and a $150,000 piece of equipment that can turn out 19-inch models of Wright's vision by the thousands. Retail price: $49.95 per fish.

The product is called FastBass, and it's the latest nexus of two burgeoning monsters of American sports marketing -- NASCAR and professional bass fishing. Once snubbed as the redneck twins of Southern sports, their growing mainstream appeal has become a salesman's dream, with overlapping demographics that made a product like FastBass almost inevitable.

"You can lay one group over the other," says Frank Oelerich, president of Mann's Bait Co. "The 100,000 bubbas in the [NASCAR] stands are the same people who have an avocation for bass fishing."

Oelerich ought to know. Two years ago his bait company in Eufaula, Ala., manufactured a line of fishing lures that resembled tiny NASCAR racers attached to two treble hooks. You could cast and crank Jeff Gordon's trusty No. 24 through the murk, and maybe a Dale Earnhardt-loving bass would spitefully try to bite it.

Coming this June is the biggest bass-NASCAR hybrid yet. Sponsors of the inaugural season of World Championship Fishing are billing the six-event tour as "the outdoorsman's biathlon that combines bass fishing and boat handling each day will consist of a morning round of bass fishing, a midday weigh-in, followed by a pit break and then afternoon power boating. During the pit break, NASCAR-like crews will add custom-fitted cowlings [detachable covers] to the boats " and so on.

"This kind of ratchets it up to another level," Oelerich says.

There is even an unofficial First Family of the bass-NASCAR fusion. That would be the Hank Parker clan.

Hank Sr. was a professional bass fisherman and a two-time champion of the BASS Masters Classic. Now he's the host of his own outdoor sports show on cable TV's Nashville Network and helps run the Hank Parker Race Team with his son, Hank Jr., who drives NASCAR racer No. 53 on the Busch Grand National Circuit. The hood of his Chevy Monte Carlo carries the logo of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS).

It was Hank Sr. who helped develop the NASCAR fishing lure, after the Action Performance Co. in Phoenix came up with the idea.

"At first I thought it was a joke," Oelerich says. "Hank and I made a visit to those people. They asked Hank if he would endorse the product, and he insisted that this not be a gimmick lure. It had to work. And it does. Is it the greatest crank bait in the world? Probably not. But we tested it on a 2 1/2-acre pond next to our plant, and it by golly caught bass."

It also caught customers, even at the steep price of $19.99 apiece.

"We do not have a single one left," Oelerich says. "They sold like hotcakes."

So it's hardly surprising that the Hank Parker Race Team recently signed agreements with FastBass for not one but two painted-up fishes featuring No. 53. It seems that Hank Sr. saw one of the painted fish last year at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I thought it was just hilarious," he says. "It's a great little novelty item."

By then Wright and Taylor were so hooked on the project they'd quit their jobs at a Chevy dealership in Jackson, Miss., to pursue FastBass full-time. Wright still talks wistfully of Taylor's first prototype.

"If you look at it now, it's the ugliest thing you've ever seen," he says. "But to us then it was pure beauty, the eighth wonder of the world. We went into the dealership and said, 'Here it is, guys.' They all broke out laughing."

NASCAR drivers and pit crew chiefs laughed when they got a look. But they also asked if they could have one. Down right had to have them, in fact, and that's when Wright and Taylor realized they'd come up with more than just a novelty for the game room.

Next they drew up a business plan and peddled a private stock offering. Now they're estimating $250,000 of business in the first two years and have begun running TV ads in some Southern markets, hoping to broaden the campaign if all goes well.

Tom Cotter, chairman of Cotter Group, the country's largest motor sports marketing group, reacted in the customary way to FastBass but saw the wisdom in it, too.

"After the first five minutes of laughing, I figured it had to come to this," Cotter says. "I pass bass fisherman on the way home from work every day, and I think every one of them has a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt on. I had to admire these guys. It's probably the type of thing where they're sitting around a Budweiser one night saying, 'How are we going to make money from this NASCAR thing?' "

Seeking tie-ins

For companies making NASCAR products, FastBass represents the growing desperation to come up with anything new. There are already NASCAR wind chimes, golf bags and teddy bears. There's even a NASCAR Barbie.

For the makers of bass gear, the appeal of crossover products is more elemental. NASCAR holds claim to one of the truly whiz-bang statistics of sports marketing. Among its fans, Cotter says, "72 percent always or almost always buy sponsor products. It is the most loyal consumer fan following in the world of sports." Tennis, the second-place finisher, runs several laps behind at 45 percent.

So, when the people who run BASS started looking for ways to jazz up their tournaments, NASCAR was at the top of the list of role models. And after five years of tinkering, BASS ended up with World Championship Fishing, an event incorporating motor performance and slick driving on a tough, curvy water course, with pit crews standing by and with big numbers and sponsor names emblazoned on the lean, mean driving machines.

And, with the fishermen-drivers forced to use stock boats and engines no different from the ones anybody can buy, "We're back to the early years of NASCAR," says Don Corkran, the new tour's director of competition. He's referring to the days when a stock car really was a stock car, using engines right off the showroom floor.

As for the fancy cowlings, Corkran says, "That gives us a hood like a Winston Cup car has. It's really just for aesthetics."

BASS' arch rivals in the competing bass league of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour have wasted no time in trashing the new event as a pseudo-sport. They're also the owners of Ranger Boats, and have made it known that no Rangers will appear in the events.

It was that sponsor conflict, in fact, that has kept bass-NASCAR man Hank Parker Sr. from becoming a charter fisherman-driver for World Championship Fishing. He'd been set to go but didn't want to jeopardize his relationship with Ranger.

"I was kind of caught in the crossfire," he says.

But in taking that stand, Ranger is risking losing out on NASCAR crossover appeal. Fox Sports Net has already signed on to broadcast the new tour, and companies catering to bass fisherman will be watching closely.

In fact, they're watching every aspect of the NASCAR-bass fan base, Oelerich says, looking for new ways to cash in: "The whole fishing-tackle industry is eyeballing it, trying to figure out where the crossovers are."

They're out there, all right, lurking like lunkers in the reeds of a pond. Big ones with Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 painted just below the dorsal fin.

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