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Originally published Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 1:26 PM

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NASCAR races after Latino market with TV series

Ela Rivella is a sexy, headstrong race car driver torn between two racing brothers in a glamorous, high-stakes world of cutthroat competition and danger. Ela loved Jordi Fernandez until jealousy drove them apart, and now she's irresistibly drawn to Checo, whose clandestine romance with Ela could drive Jordi to violence.

AP Sports Writer

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FONTANA, Calif. —

Ela Rivella is a sexy, headstrong race car driver torn between two racing brothers in a glamorous, high-stakes world of cutthroat competition and danger. Ela loved Jordi Fernandez until jealousy drove them apart, and now she's irresistibly drawn to Checo, whose clandestine romance with Ela could drive Jordi to violence.

Sound like a soap opera? Maybe some particularly ambitious Formula One fan fiction?

It's an actual novela - the wildly popular short-run series that flood the Latino television market in North America and beyond - co-produced by Univision and NASCAR to put the down-home American sport of stock car racing in front of millions of Spanish-speaking viewers who might have never watched a NASCAR race.

This remarkable blend of speed and cheese will debut on Univision's website in a series of five- to seven-minute episodes starting in April before appearing on Univision on May 5. Called "Arranque de Pasión, La Historia de Ela," it's an audacious attempt to expand the NASCAR brand into the growing Latino population through a particular form of storytelling.

"Nobody knows a lot about NASCAR," said Kate Del Castillo, the famed Mexican actress producing and starring in the novela. "I think we have to get much more exposure for NASCAR. When you think about it, it's all about family, and that's what we like. It's about spending an entire day at the track. It's an experience, a whole day for family, and yet it's very dangerous. It's very dramatic. I think it's perfect for us."

NASCAR's entertainment arm realizes it's trying something unusual, but NASCAR vice president of entertainment marketing Zane Stoddard believes novelas are one way to crack a market that's been targeted for a decade with varying success.

NASCAR already had worked with Univision to put a racing-themed storyline into an existing show 18 months earlier. Last summer, NASCAR decided an original novela was an idea just crazy enough to work - a unique chance to expand the Spanish-speaking world's awareness of its sport.

"It's our opportunity to meet them where they're at, within the genres they're already invested in," Stoddard said. "I feel like our sport is uniquely accessible in terms of relationships, family and all the things that drive television shows."

Like every pro sports organization in North America, NASCAR has realized the importance of courting Latino fans - and a connection with stock car racing isn't far-fetched at all.

The NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series is in its seventh season under the NASCAR banner, fueling a growing boom in oval track racing in Mexico. NASCAR says its Sprint Cup series ratings among Hispanic viewers are up 27 percent on Fox this season, with year-by-year increases for each of the five races so far.

Gillian Zucker, the president of Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, markets aggressively to Latino racing fans in a state where Latinos will make up a plurality of the population by next year. Roughly 40 percent of her track's customers identify as Latino, and she hired singer Lupillo Rivera to perform for fans at last weekend's NASCAR race in which Del Castillo was the honorary starter.

Del Castillo became fascinated by auto racing when she participated in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race in Long Beach, Calif., last year. After crashing out on the last lap - "which felt good, sorry to say," she said with a grin - she decided to find a project that would put her in the racing milieu.

"It was out of nowhere, but I couldn't be happier or luckier," she said. "I never would have thought that NASCAR is so into it. They've been so nice, providing us everything. They've all been amazing."

After Univision and Del Castillo's production company assembled a crew of creative talent, NASCAR watched over the proceedings for authenticity and content. The unlikely combination apparently worked for both the NASCAR executives and the Latino stars and producers - maybe because fast cars and beautiful people aren't a tough sell in any language.

"Creative people come into this environment, and it's like a kid in a candy store because it's such a visceral overload," Stoddard said. "Because the novela is such a specific kind of story, very dramatic, we didn't want to pretend we understood the kind of storytelling that takes place in novelas. We know what we know, and we know what we don't know. We rely primarily on them to begin with the story and then allow us to be a sounding board, to layer authenticity over it."

"Arranque de Pasion" is set in a fictional NASCAR universe, which means nobody should expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer to be polishing their Spanish for a cameo. Much of the filming was done at Homestead Miami Speedway in authentic stock cars, although Del Castillo didn't actually get to drive them while playing Ela.

"I'm grateful for that," she said. "They're very expensive cars."

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