News & Media

Six Pack of Pop: Kal Penn

September 25, 2013, Holly Cain,

Popular actor a long-time NASCAR fan

Actor Kal Penn starred in a title role in the "Harold and Kumar" movie series, is a former co-star on the hugely popular television show "House" and a host on The Discovery Channel’s show "The Big Brain Theory."

This fall television season, he joins the cast of "We Are Men," which premieres Sept. 30 on CBS.

And beyond his acting profession, Penn held a position in President Obama's White House Office of Public Engagement.

But ask the 36-year-old New Jersey native where he prefers to spend any valuable down time and he’ll tell you: A NASCAR race.

After attending several NASCAR races closer to his Los Angeles home the past few seasons, Penn showed up at the Sept. 7 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular-season finale at Richmond, excited to see his first night race.

In between touring the garage, visiting drivers and guest tweeting for NASCAR’s official Twitter account (@NASCAR), he sat down with to talk about his fondness for the sport.

What are your initial impressions of the Richmond race being the last event to set the Chase field?

This is my first East Coast race, first night race. The tracks I’ve been to before have been Fontana and Phoenix so it’s awesome to actually get to come here. I’m from New Jersey, so anything East Coast, I’m biased.

But the vibe is totally different too from the West Coast races, which have been a lot of fun. Maybe it’s because ... so much will be determined tonight. But it’s a whole lot less laid back, maybe because of the stakes, but it’s super interesting. This is not the race you grab one beer during the green flag and sit down 10 minutes later. This is the race you need to be in your seat ready to go.
How did NASCAR end up on your radar?

NASCAR, I got into about three years ago. I love engineering, I love the team sport aspect of NASCAR. Obviously, the drivers and the drivers' personalities play into the teams, but the whole interaction of the teams, the engineering, the physics, both in real time as these men and women are racing but in the weeks in between; the analysis of data that goes into how the drivers will be briefed.

It's just all so cool. The soap opera of any sport is super interesting and particularly in NASCAR. But it’s all the other stuff that goes into it.
You got to know Joey Logano and Carl Edwards, how did you meet them?

I'm a Joey Logano fan, yeah. That came about because at one of the first races I went to, a friend hooked us up with hot passes, which was incredible since I have that dorky side of me that wanted to learn about the engineering.

So we were walking around different garages and I had been getting to know some of the drivers just from reading and we were going from one to another. I was just watching Logano’s guys work on his car and he was in the back then he came out to say, 'Hi'’ We struck up a conversation.

Carl Edwards has been awesome. I met him during our first race and we worked together on a TV show I did for the Discovery Channel, "The Big Brain Theory." He was a guest judge and it was a competition show for engineering.

He was awesome and the contestants all loved him because he came in and could talk your ear off about the engineering side. It was cool.

What was the NASCAR hook for you?

When I'm not at races and watching from home, I have so much respect for the fact these drivers are literally on pit road getting into their cars with cameras in their faces, photo opps ... they’ve got to do this as they are getting in the car. I can barely concentrate when I'm by myself in my apartment preparing for an acting role and I don't have to drive almost 200 mph and worry about a whole lot of other things.

To me, that’s soap opera right there. What do you have to do to mentally prepare for that, what goes through your mind, how do you just shake it off and focus.

And once you’re out there, you’ve got a beef with someone and they try to wreck you then they pretend they didn’t try and it was just, 'sorry, I didn’t see you there.'
You’ve worked in Hollywood, then in Washington D.C. and now you’re at a NASCAR race. Which was the most interesting transition?

The NASCAR component is awesome, it's a sport and it's fun. It's funny the transition from LA to DC was not all that awkward I think because there were a lot of people -- and this goes whether you’re talking about an Obama administration or a Bush administration -- there’s so many people in Washington that everybody doesn't like, such as the politicians. But there's also all the people that work on their staffs, who have taken leaves of absence from being a doctor or a teacher, or nurse or businessperson and serve a year or four years and I had the chance to be around those people so it wasn't all that different. I just left the performing arts industry. It was less of a weird transition than I thought.
What do your friends in Hollywood think of your devotion to NASCAR?

When I'm in LA, I try to get as many people into NASCAR as possible, so I'll have people over to my apartment to watch a random race. Let's just grill, have a couple beverages and watch the race and I will explain it to you. I've converted people.

I'm on a new show called "We Are Men" and the cast had our media day yesterday in LA. As I was leaving, I told them, "I'm going to the Richmond NASCAR race and I expect us all to go to a race together at Fontana, Vegas or Phoenix … and you're going to want to go to the Sonoma one for wine. We need to go a traditional race first."

I’m hoping to get them maybe to Phoenix later this year.


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