NASCAR-licensed romance novels? No, someone hasn't been sucking on Sunoco fumes. NASCAR estimates that 40 percent of its 75 million fans are women and that they're 26 percent more likely to read romance novels than non-fan females. ''The romance premise is always the underdog heroine and the hero who'll conquer everything,'' says author Pamela Britton, who launches the series this month with her novel In the Groove (Harlequin, $6.99), about an ex- kindergarten teacher who drives a million-dollar motor coach for a fictional slumping Dale Earnhardt Jr. kind of charmer. ''[NASCAR's] modern-day gladiator thing translates nicely.''
Harlequin apparently agrees. The publisher plans two more NASCAR titles this year and 19 in 2007. (Note to fans of bodice-rippers: NASCAR's ''PG-13'' final edit means that while you may start your engine, you ain't gonna rev it.)
How do the drivers feel about their sport being the first to partner with Harlequin? ''Are you kidding?'' asked the bemused 2005 Nextel Cup champ Tony Stewart, picturing his grandmother's Fabio-covered collection. ''I guess if there's more good-lookin' girls chasing me at the end of the day, great, I'm all for it.... [But] if I find any of the guys on my team reading that, they're fired.''