“This is so f–king cool!” Kal Penn shouts from pit road at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I can yell whatever the f–k I want because nobody can f–king hear me! Woo!”
That’s 15 seconds into a NASCAR segment from Penn’s tenure guest-hosting Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, as the 45-year-old actor attended the spring 2023 race in Sin City for the program.
Penn is best known for his role in the Harold & Kumar film series, but also appeared in movies including Superman Returns, Deck the Halls, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and, most recently, the 2022 horror film Smile.
He also appeared in television series such as House, American Horror Story, Designated Survivor and How I Met Your Mother. He also served on President Barack Obama’s administration as an associate director in the Office of Public Engagement.
“Really like [Ryan] Blaney, really like Bubba [Wallace],” Penn told Frontstretch‘s Michael Massie on pit road before the Vegas race. “We’re shooting a piece for Comedy Central. Both Bubba and Austin [Dillon] have been great as well. Good feel today. …”
“… I’ve been to a bunch [of races]. It’s been a while, since pre-COVID[-19], so it’s nice to be back.”
Penn said he had been to Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway and Pocono Raceway, the latter owing to his residency on the East Coast.
“We’re doing a segment on trying to get more people to pay attention to NASCAR,” Penn said.
Penn actually connected with his fiancé, Josh, through the motorsport.
“The way that we met was over a bunch of Coors Lights and NASCAR,” Penn said on The Kelly Clarkson Show in late 2022. “It’s such an absurd story — my dad likes Coors Light, but I did not grow up with NASCAR.
“[…] This dude rolls over to my apartment with an 18-pack of Coors Light […] and he rolls in and changes [the TV] to a NASCAR race. And I just thought to myself, ‘Oh, well this guy’s obviously going to be leaving in 20 minutes with 16 of those beers, because I don’t know anything about NASCAR.'”
As it happened, things turned out differently.
“It turned out that as we started watching the race and talking about NASCAR, we also started talking about camping […] [his family’s] vacations were camping trips to races.
“[…] Now, I’ve gone to a bunch of NASCAR races, and I’m following drivers.”
Penn came out as gay in late 2021, around the time that his memoir You Can’t Be Serious was released, and said his friends were more surprised by his NASCAR fandom than his coming out.
All of that led to an over-seven-minute segment dedicated to his experience at Las Vegas on the iconic late-night show the week of March 13.
“Yeah, I know,” Penn says to open the video. “You’re looking at me, and you’re like, ‘Seriously, Kal, you’ve been a NASCAR fan for 12 years?'”
And it’s on from there.
Penn talks to fans to open the piece and highlights just how diverse the fanbase is — an Indian-American son of Hindu Indian Gujarati immigrant parents, Penn also talked about that aspect with Wallace.
“I think, from the outside looking in, especially minorities feel that the stigma’s been there that they’re not welcome,” Wallace said. “I’ve always been like, ‘That’s not really true.'”
The segment also touched on the “drivers aren’t athletes” stereotype, and Penn talked with Dillon about dissipating that cliché.
“Our heart rates peak at around 170 [beats per minute],” Dillon said. “During the race, you’re around the 140 area. That’s a high heart rate for a sustained, long period of time, and hydration is huge. I can lose up to about seven pounds in the racecar on a hot day.”
“In one race?!” Penn said. “Oh, can I drive this race? I would love to look a little …”
Dillon then had to go for prerace ceremonies, and so began the infamous Kal Penn – Austin Dillon feud. Penn went to Blaney, who took his side, and then switched gears to showing fans the pit-crew side of the race. He talked with Trackhouse Racing tire changer Dalanda Ouendeno.
“One tire can take, like, maybe two, three seconds,” Ouendeno said. “We did reps after reps after reps every time, because two-tenths of a second costs a lot of money for a team if you make a mistake.”
Penn then attempted a ghost-car pit stop with 23XI Racing tire carrier Wade Moore.
“Oh, shit!” Penn yelled as the tire rolled away and sentenced him with an imaginary penalty.
23XI Strategy and Systems engineer JR Houston also broke down the sport from his perspective, touching on analytics and in-race adjustments.
“The sport’s way different than it has been in the past,” Houston said. “My husband and I talk about it all the time — even myself, working for Bubba, I think a lot of people have always thought that this sport was kind of out of reach, not only because they couldn’t get into the sport, but also because they wouldn’t be accepted by the sport.
“I think that just being out there and being vocal is super important.”
Penn also climbed behind the wheel of a NASCAR Racing Experience machine.
“I was getting into it, and after I peed my pants, it was such a relief,” Penn said after rolling back to pit road. “That was f–king awesome!”
Capping off the segment was a visit to the infield, where Penn hung out with fans, shared some beers and took in the race.
When it comes to late-night shows or talk shows in general, it’s pretty bare-bones as to NASCAR’s representation on them. Jimmy Fallon had the Championship 4 drivers on for a couple years (plus Jeff Gordon recently), Clarkson had Jimmie Johnson on (she’s a fan) multiple times and Stephen Colbert had both Johnson and Kyle Busch on, but motorsports in general have been severely lacking in terms of talk-show representation.
Here’s hoping more celebrities jump onto the promoting-NASCAR bandwagon and continue its trend of expanding popularity.
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.
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