Apart from the ponytail, high-tops, and robust midsection, Mario Batali isn’t what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase “NASCAR dad” (most of whom would likely think that headcheese is something you spread on a Ritz). But this Sunday, Batali—father of two boys, not to mention a rapidly proliferating culinary empire—will wave the green flag as the honorary starter for the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway. “I’ve been down on the track near the starting line before,” the chef reports. “It’s tantamount to being onstage at the start of a Led Zeppelin concert. So much intensity! So much noise! It was one of the truly divine moments of my life.”
NASCAR Nation may soon be seeing even more of Batali: He’s on the brink of closing a deal to write an official NASCAR cookbook—a kind of ultimate guide to tailgating. “These people go to the races for several days,” he says, “so the idea is to give them a bunch of set menus, a weekend’s worth, so they can do a lot of the prep at home.” Though Batali hasn’t yet started on the recipes, presumably they won’t include wine pairings with any killer Brunellos.
Batali has been cozying up to the NASCAR hierarchy for the past couple of seasons, cooking pre-race meals and throwing parties for track owners and drivers—some of whom have turned his Otto Enoteca Pizzeria into their off-season hangout. Recently he approached NASCAR’s licensing division, which has a thriving publishing wing. For Batali, the commercial appeal of such a project is obvious: A media and marketing juggernaut, NASCAR is the country’s fastest-growing sport, with a rabid fan base numbering 75 million people, many of whom snap up its products the way foodies devour the beef-cheek ravioli at Babbo. “The fans are fascinating,” Batali says. “Fascinating in their intensity, fascinating in their diversity, and, most important, fascinating in their sheer volume.”
Batali says he’s been an avid NASCAR watcher since his days growing up in Washington State, where “the two biggest deals going were drag racing and hydroplaning.” He regards his fellow fans with admiration. “They’re the Merry Pranksters of snack foods—they’ll cook literally anything.” He claims to have drawn some inspiration from what he’s seen on the infield at past races: a beer keg cut in half to cook up a monster shrimp boil; a whole prime-rib roast coated with mushrooms, covered in tinfoil, and tossed right on the coals inside a Weber. “I gotta try that,” he says.
And while Batali is quick to insist that he’s a blue-state guy with zero tolerance for foods from a can, he’s always been happy to venture into populist territory, like the Iron Chef America competition. Now he’s just taking a step further in that direction, appealing to a group with whom he actually shares some fundamental traits: rambunctiousness, a yen for excess—and, of course, a deep infatuation with all things pork. “On the question of pig,” Batali says, “there’s a proximity of soul between us.”