Kevin James fancies himself an everyman in his comedic roles. He's worked as a mall cop and delivery driver, an unlucky zoo keeper and a retired police officer.
But it still took the actor a moment to figure out how he might fit in a series set in a NASCAR garage.
"I don't know how it would work as a comedy," James said.
James said the light went off — or more fittingly, the green flag of an idea dropped — when the show, "The Crew," was framed as less about the inner workings of the industry and more about the relationships of a tight-knit racing team.
"It's a workplace comedy, there's family, it's competitive," James said. "It's set on the greatest stage ever. It's insane what NASCAR is."
James stars as crew chief Kevin Gibson in the new Netflix comedy series, the latest in a line of NASCAR-themed TV shows and movies where the source material traditionally bordered on good ol' boys satire or sensationalism rather than reality. How "The Crew" will rank among past vehicles like " Days of Thunder," "Talladega Nights," "Cars," and "Stroker Ace" remains to be seen, but it's not a show just for race fans.
"People who don't love NASCAR will still love it because it's about the characters," James said.
His only taste of NASCAR growing up in New York City were the highlights aired on "Wide World of Sports." He later served as the grand marshal at a handful of NASCAR races, sometimes sharing duties with celebrity friends like Adam Sandler.
Old vs. new
James plays an old-school crew chief for the fictional Bobby Spencer Racing team at odds with a new owner (Jillian Mueller) who wants to modernize the dysfunctional team. The team fields the No. 74 Fake Steak-sponsored car.
NASCAR cooperated with the project. To lend an air of authenticity to the racing footage, driver Reed Sorenson's car was repainted as the Fake Steak car for a race last season. James was coached by longtime crew chief Tony Gibson. Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer are among the drivers who have cameos.
"They're not really trying to make us look bad," Blaney said. "They're just doing something that I think it's really going to get people watching NASCAR."
Jeff Lowell, a writer and producer of the show, tweeted that the series would try to avoid the cliches that often paint NASCAR and its fans as simple-minded bumpkins or stereotypically Southern.
"Our goal is to not have it ring false to fans," he said.
Although it didn't paint NASCAR in the most flattering light, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is the undisputed champ in the stock car racing niche. The 2006 film followed Ricky Bobby as he went from a clueless doofus to down-on-his-luck driver to a clueless doofus again, though with a tinge of humility. The movie spoofs everything from sponsorship to an unsophisticated fan base that counts dinner at Applebee's as a big night out.