When Worlds Collide: The NFL invades NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 20: Ryan Vargas, driver of the #6 The Big Squeezy Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Xfinity Super Start Batteries 188 At Daytona Presented by O'Reilly at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Alvin Kamara knows his way around an NFL field. The two-time All Pro running back for the New Orleans Saints can do things during a game that leaves defenses wondering what just happened.

Kamara, however, is outside his element at a NASCAR track. Yet, not only has Kamara been to a couple of races, but he also recently went all in, sponsoring a car in the NASCAR Xfinity series. And it all started with a Tweet.

Kamara was at Daytona for the season opening Daytona 500. He was invited to watch the race as a VIP in the suites watching the action with a group of NASCAR executives including NASCAR president Steve Phelps. Kamara said he started to wonder.

“I was like, man, yeah, in my head, I’m always thinking like, this was probably a hard thing to get into this NASCAR thing,” he said. “Like just sponsoring anything, doing anything.”

According to Kamara Phelps said, ‘nah, it’s not really that hard’.

“And I’m like, what?” Kamara said laughing.

Ryan Vargas races in NASCAR Xfinity series. But like a lot of young drivers lacks the funding needed to be competitive. Vargas races for JD Motorsports and the team was looking for sponsorship for the Daytona Road Course race the following weekend. Vargas posted the team’s dilemma on Twitter; it caught the attention of Kamara who was interested in turning his fandom into something more, at least for one race.

The two found each other on the social media platform and a deal was stuck shortly after for a one race sponsorship. Saturday Vargas raced the No. 6 Chevy adorned in the colors of The Big Squeezy, a juice chain based in Louisiana co-owned by Kamara.

“I wanted to do it,” Kamara said. “I had a price in my head. I’ve never had any experience with NASCAR sponsorship…I’ve now been a fan for a short period now. But as far as sponsorship I’m like, man, I had a number I’m like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a million dollars’.

“When I heard the price, I’m like, ‘oh yeah, come on’! He added chuckling.

“This is it’s perfect timing. Like I felt like everything was aligned and, in the universe, I just talked about it and then this opportunity comes up. I was like, man too. Why not?”

Kamara said though he knew of NASCAR, he was really attracted to the sport after NASCAR, led by Bubba Wallace who he knew from college, began to draw attention to the social issues that surfaced across America last year including NASCAR’s banning of the Confederate flag.

“Obviously with NASCAR making the move to ban the flag from their events and basically their culture and their footprint,” Kamara said. “That was one huge thing. I probably couldn’t bring myself to go to a race if that was something I felt like they were supporting. With that being gone, I think there will be more African American fans and people that are interested.”

With the world on lockdown, Kamara said he watched his first race.

“I really sat down, and I was like, ‘all right, let me see what’s really going on’”, he said. “Let me just watch it and give it a chance and like, try to really understand it. And you know, it seemed cool. I was like, okay. So, I’m really listening to what’s what, what they’re saying and what they’re talking about.

“I realized that there’s really more than what meets the eye when it comes to NASCAR. So I’m just sitting on the couch, I’m in Miami and I’m like, I wonder if I can go to a race. So I go on Google.

“I hear on TV. They’re like, ‘we’ll see you next weekend in Homestead or something’. And I’m like, that sounds like it’s in Florida. So, I go on Google and like, okay, yeah. “

Kamara attended his first NASCAR race at Homestead last June.

“The fast car is definitely, it’s surprising,” he said. “You think they more fast on TV. You can say 200 miles per hour, but when you see 200 miles per hour and feel it and hear it, it’s totally different.”

Since announcing his involvement in NASCAR Kamara said he has gotten messages from friends and is encouraging them to come to a race.

“They’re just like, ‘I like it, I’m into it, but I don’t know how to be into it, or I’m not comfortable … being into NASCAR,’” he said. “‘I’m like yo, it’s cool.’ I’m seeing so many messages and people tweeting me, like, man, now that you’re into it, I want to really explore it now.”

He’s also interested in attracting his fellow players.

“I will pay for everybody to come to a race and sit in a suite so you can see what’s going on, or go down by the track or sit in the grandstand and hear the engines start or see the laps,” Kamara enthusiastically told his teammates. “Man, it’s different, it’s a different experience. You’ve got to experience it; you’ve got to be there to really appreciate the sport.”

Kamara wasn’t the only NFL player on the Xfinity grid Saturday. Antonio Williams a running back with the Buffalo Bills recently announced he has become a personal investor in the future of Joe Graf Jr.’s NASCAR career. Graf currently races in the Xfinity series.

Earlier in the week, Williams challenged Kamara and Vargas through a social media post that the top finishing driver in the 52-lap race would pledge a donation to a charity of each team’s choice.

Vargas started 12th Saturday. Graf started 9th.

Vargas suffered some mechanical issues that sent him behind the wall early in the going, he finished 37th 23 laps down. Graf finished on the lead lap in 20th.

As for his future involvement in NASCAR, Kamara said he doesn’t know yet how deep that might go. Saturday was a test run, but he can’t wait to see where it leads.

“I feel like the possibilities are endless right now,” Kamara said before the race. “I’m kind of treating this like I’m about to perform or compete. I can only imagine what Ryan is feeling right now. I’m just focused on Saturday … doing everything I can to make Saturday a moment for JD Motorsports and Ryan.”

One thing is for certain it’s a good bet NASCAR has not seen the last of Alvin Kamara, especially after the welcome he got as his first race last year.

“I was kind of like, let me stay on my side, I’ll introduce myself,” Kamara said. “But everyone was so welcoming. They’re like, ‘Man, we love that you’re here. Are you really interested?’ I’m like yeah, and we had conversations going and flowing. I’m meeting fans and interacting with people. I’m like oh, this is a safe space. It’s not what I thought it was. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Greg Engle