Sunday, September 5, 2010

Changing Lanes premiered Wednesday night on BET in front of a national audience, placing NASCAR, Charlotte, and women and minority drivers on center stage. To celebrate the unprecedented convergence for this reality competition "docu-series," the show's producers held a premiere party in Charlotte at Mez/EpiCentre Theaters that I was fortunate to attend (there was also a premiere party in Daytona).

After an hour of red carpet photography, mingling, drinks, and passed trays in Mez's lounge, we all filled into the theater at 8 p.m. to watch the premiere at the same time it was airing on BET. This was the first of 10 one-hour episodes that will chronicle a group of women and minority drivers competing for a spot on a race team through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program.

Driver Ryan Gifford and Max Siegel at the Changing Lanes premiere party at Mez.

The showing we were treated to was commercial-free, so the extra time allowed for an introduction by Jay Abraham, COO of NASCAR Media Group, which is a producer of the show. The other main principal behind Changing Lanes, aside from BET, is Max Siegel and his Revolution Racing team.

I'll sum up my thoughts of the first episode of Changing Lanes first by saying that it was interesting and I think it's certainly a concept that is to be applauded by all parties involved. In the history of NASCAR, only one black driver has won a race in its top series (today known as the Sprint Cup): Wendell Scott in 1963. It has baffled many as to why nearly 50 years have passed without seeing this feat repeated. Whatever the challenges and difficulties may be, I think we'll see it play out on Changing Lanes.

Reality shows have dominated television for the past decade, but if you can look past the buffoonery you'll recall that the platform has launched the careers of singers (American Idol), models (America's Next Top Model), designers (Project Runway), chefs (Top Chef), business execs (The Apprentice), and many other professionals. And as with these shows, in the sports world your success is based on your performance. That's why the driver who eventually wins the competition on Changing Lanes has the chance to succeed once the cameras have stopped following him or her around, because being a minority or woman may have given them the opportunity but their performance on the track will prove whether he or she is worthy of it and can take it further.

As a reality show, Changing Lanes has its drama, but it's largely created on the track and heightened by hard-hitting music, quick camera angles, and the voiceover by rapper Ludacris, who interestingly is a good fit. So don't expect fights, drunkenness, and other train-wreck behavior that pull you into your favorite reality shows. But there are a few personalities that will intrigue you--the cocky driver who has an air of arrogance because he's had more success than the others in the group; the 25 year-old driver who understands that he's racing against the age clock; the Haitian-born driver who was adopted and raised by a white American couple, long before it was the popular thing to do; and several of the young female drivers who have to prove that they can compete with the boys.

Much of the series was taped in Charlotte and Concord, and if a star is born from the show it will likely be Max Siegel (the ten drivers who compete in the show all lived in his house during that span--yes, it's a very big house). Siegel is well known in the sports and entertainment world, but more so behind the scenes as an attorney, sports agent, and music executive. He became a part of NASCAR--and Charlotte--a few years ago when he was tapped to be president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. That's how I met him and have written about him for publications and this blog over the last couple of years. With Siegel essentially playing the Donald Trump role in this reality show he helped create, he'll become known to a wider audience.

Following the episode shown at the premiere party, there was a Q&A with Abraham, Siegel, and four of the young drivers from the show. One of the things that Abraham and Siegel stressed is that it's important that the show does well, i.e. get good ratings. That might prove tougher than just providing a compelling show that people will want to watch. The series is airing on BET because NASCAR wants to tap into its large African-American audience, which makes sense because it probably wouldn't draw that audience if it aired on the racing-focused SPEED network. But it remains to be seen if blacks who watch BET will tune into Changing Lanes if they weren't previously fans of racing, and whether whites who follow NASCAR will look for the show on Black Entertainment Television.

Catch Changing Lanes each Wednesday at 8 p.m. on BET (channel 329 on DirecTV and 59 on Time Warner Cable in Charlotte). Click here for the show's official website.


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