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NASCAR goes distance in fan promotions at Texas Motor Speedway

FORT WORTH — The face of NASCAR is changing. And at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, the face will be a retired California furniture company representative named Ron Bernheim.

The 66-year-old’s grinning mug will be emblazoned on driver Kasey Kahne’s car during Saturday’s O’Reilly 300, Bernheim’s prize for winning the online “Your Face in the Race” sweepstakes. The race will be broadcast on ESPN2.

“Good thing the FBI isn’t looking for me,” said Bernheim, who is being flown first-class to Fort Worth for the race.

It is the first time a fan’s image has appeared on a car, NASCAR officials said, but part of a trend toward more interactive, fan-friendly promotions that include naming races after them and etching marriage proposals on cars.

“It’s about putting the fans out front and center,” said Andrew Giangola, a NASCAR spokesman. “In this case, a fan’s picture will basically be a 200-mile-per-hour billboard.”

Bernheim is not even a lifelong racing fan. He got interested about 15 years ago while attending a furniture show in North Carolina. The hotels were full, so he rented a room with a family of race fans.

He starting watching on television but never went to a race. “I didn’t realize the popularity of the sport,” said Bernheim, who lives in a suburb of Los Angeles. “We have football games here that 90,000 to 100,000 people go to, and I thought that was pretty good. My gosh, they say 170,000 will be at the race.”

Winning didn’t take much skill, he said. He just filled out a form. About 355,000 fans entered the contest, which was sponsored by Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.

Bernheim’s image was painted on the hood of Kahne’s car under the words “Real Fan of the Year.”

“I was at lunch yesterday showing a picture of it to people — because I pretty much show it to anyone I can trap in a corner,” he said. “And everyone’s comment was, ‘I didn’t think anyone ever really won those contests.’ I didn’t think so either, but somehow I won.”

Bernheim was allowed to take three people to Fort Worth with him, so he’s bringing his wife, his son and his son’s girlfriend. His wife wants to go to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame while they’re here. They will also get to meet Kahne.

“They say watching a race on TV doesn’t compare to actually being there,” Bernheim said. “So we’re pretty thrilled by it all.”

For the fans Naming rights

Did you watch the Jim Stewart 400 last May and wonder who Jim Stewart was? He was a 34-year-old Houma, La., man in the construction business. The race was named for him after he won a contest sponsored by Crown Royal, in which about 15,000 fans submitted written and video entries about moments worth toasting. Stewart’s winning entry was about fishing with his dad. “It’s like winning the lottery,” Stewart told the New York Times.

No smoking

Three hundred fans who had stopped smoking served as grand marshal at the Nicorette 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 8. The fans announced together “Gentlemen, start your engines.” They also received VIP treatment and took a bow at pre-race introductions.

Marry me

On May 17, one lucky fan will pop the question via speeding race car. Fans were invited to explain in 50 words or less why they want to propose — renewing vows also qualifies — in a contest sponsored by Harlequin, a publisher of romance novels, and Office Depot. The winner, who has not been selected, will win a prize package worth $10,000, and the proposal will be written on the back of Carl Edwards’ Ford Fusion.