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Evidence of culture theft is all over town. But this time we’re not talking about white youngsters adopting the B-boy uni of their downtown peers. Nah, now it’s urban cool kids taking their fashion cues from the bottom of the cracker barrel.

Stock car attire, believe it or not, is gaining street credibility with the swiftness of Jeff Gordon’s Chevy. At least one major designer thinks that during the next school year racing wear will make all the other types of licensed apparel that youngsters favor (NFL, NBA, MLB, etc….) seem so, well, five laps ago. Anybody who attended Don King’s recent fight night at the MCI Center, an event that attracted a primarily African-American audience, could see the signs of the unlikely craze. Among the younger, hipper attendees, along with the predictable supply of baggy denim, there were enough NASCAR-themed ensembles to outfit all of Pit Row at Daytona: Tide driver jackets just like the one Ricky Rudd wears and knockoffs of Kyle Petty’s Hot Wheels jumpsuit and all sorts of other track-friendly attire bearing the hyper-colorful logos of the teams that compete on the Winston Cup circuit, the sport’s major league.

“There’s something strange going on with the NASCAR stuff in the black community right now, this crazy thing that’s developing with the clothes,” says Izzy Ezrailson, president and founder of Up Against the Wall, the D.C.-based chain that fancies itself a haberdasher with urban flair. “The kids here are really taking to these clothes.”

NASCAR racing has always been pigeonholed as a playground for rural Southern white boys, and, although there have been some token steps toward diversity in recent years—Julius Erving and former Redskin Joe Washington, both African-American, now co-own a team on the Busch circuit, a sort of farm system for the Winston Cup—there’s still plenty of rationale for the redneck stereotype. All Winston Cup drivers this season, as in most seasons, are white males, and at a typical stock car event, black fans are outnumbered by Confederate flags by a factor of, say, 100 to 1. What’s more, fashion and most other pop culture trends almost always start downtown and slowly spread to the suburbs and then on to the hinterlands. So, for any number of sociological and psychological reasons, clothiers in the city are at a loss to explain the sudden black market for designs that until quite recently were chic only in Charlotte and other decidedly less urbane areas.

“Clearly, the clothes are colorful, cheerful, and definitely conversation-starting apparel, so the [aesthetic] part I have no trouble understanding,” says Ezrailson. “But, well, we’re not talking about the typical stock car crowd here. I can’t figure out why it is, but, it is.”

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Up Against the Wall was the first downtown D.C. clothier to stock the stock car wear, but the trend didn’t start—and won’t end—in this city. Turns out that Ezrailson acquired the NASCAR wear at the recommendation of Jeff Hamilton, a Los Angeles designer and president of Hamilton Industries. Hamilton, Moroccan-born and French-reared, made a name in the fashion world in the ’80s as the first licensee for Guess Jeans and later got noticed by designing customized leather wear for the highest-profile sports superstars. He slapped a new Chicago Bulls championship jacket that he’d designed on longtime customer Michael Jordan’s back just minutes after His Airness hit the final bucket of his career to win the 1998 NBA Championship in Utah. Mike Tyson is another Hamilton regular. Along with the one-offs its president improvises for the glitterati, Hamilton Industries produces a line of licensed jackets using the logos of professional sports teams, including those on the Winston Cup circuit.

Hamilton Industries caters mainly to what it calls a “forward-thinking” crowd. But its entire NASCAR line was, until recently, earmarked for racing memorabilia stores. Then, last year, on a whim, Hamilton placed some of his driver jackets, which retail for $200 and up, with a trendy retailer in the Bronx. He says it helped when hard-core rappers, including the chart-topping DMX, agreed to wear NASCAR gear in music videos. It’s hard to imagine a more extreme culture clash. (Sample DMX lyric: “I rob and I steal/ Not cuz I want to, cuz I have to/And don’t make me show you what the mac do/If you don’t know by now you slippin’/ I’m on some bullshit that’s got me jackin’ niggas, flippin’/ Let my man and them stay pretty, but I’m a stay shitty.”) In any case, the jackets started leaving the store as quickly as they were delivered.

With the racing jackets, our hard-core business had always been from the Dukes of Hazzard kind of crowd—the hard-core NASCAR fan—and the stores that cater to that fan,” says Hamilton from his L.A. studio. “But we knew we had a good product, and, having something already designed and ready to go, we just started offering it to our fashion stores. And it took off for us.”

Buoyed by the results of his experiment in the Bronx, Hamilton convinced other retailers around New York to try out the NASCAR jackets, then moved on to Philadelphia and D.C. As Ezrailson can testify, customers have taken to the race wear wherever it’s been made available.

Overall, according to the company, Hamilton Industries’ total sales for 1999 are up 200 percent over last year, and almost all of that increase is attributed to the success of the NASCAR line, which for the first time now outsells its NBA-, NHL-, and NFL-licensed goods. And, says Hamilton, the boom in racing apparel is nowhere near running out of gas. His company recently moved from a 10,000-square-foot factory to one five times as big to accommodate demand for the jackets once the weather cools down and school starts. He also expects the Hamilton Industries booth to be one of the more visited displays at MAGIC, the fashion industry’s massive semiannual menswear trade show, which convenes next month in Las Vegas.

“This has all been a very interesting experience for me, watching NASCAR go to a nontraditional market,” says Hamilton. “But I can’t pretend this was part of any master plan on my part to go out and get the urban market. We just tried something out, and the kids have taken it over. And I really think it’s going to get bigger.”

The old-school retailers of the NASCAR clothing line, meanwhile, aren’t totally enamored of the boom. John Buckingham, owner of Joe’s Racing, a shop in Springfield Mall that once catered only to Winston Cup die-hards, says that he appreciates the additional business he’s getting these days, but that part of him still longs for the days when all his customers were fans of the sport, not just the apparel.

“I had a guy come in my store and ask me, ‘You got that Vaseline jacket in?’” Buckingham says. “I could tell this guy had never watched a race in his life.”

Buckingham nevertheless sold the patron a Valvoline jacket, a replica of what Mark Martin wears when he’s on the track.—Dave McKenna