You see them at major sporting events all over the country. Most professional sports teams employ one. Some people love them, kids especially. Others try to avoid the character at all costs. Sometimes these mascots are better entertainment than the game being played. To be a professional mascot takes a lot of talent and no shortage of hard work. Kentucky Speedway has one of the best, his name is “Horsepower” and you only need to watch how the fans react to him to understand why.
Horsepower, the perfect name for the race track mascot of a speedway located in the thoroughbred capital of the country. The smiling horse head is dressed in a driver’s fire suit, complete with a tail, and big black horseshoes. This is marketing genius on behalf of the media and hospitality departments at Kentucky Speedway.
As fans file into the grandstands, Horsepower mingles with the crowd. Stopping for pictures, posing with the youngsters and doing his mascot thing. NASCAR fans are a unique breed, driver loyalty is paramount to spectators of the sport. They might not like a specific make of car. Certain car numbers have them seeing red. But, everyone loves Horsepower.
If you want to preserve the mascot fantasy, stop reading now before the real story starts. Walking around in a horse costume in the middle of July is not something most normal people would consider fun. Fortunately, Nick St. Pierre is not normal. Nick is 47 years old and has been in the mascot business for 20 years. If you ask him, Nick will tell you he has not worked a day in those 20 years.
In real life, Nick is employed by the Cincinnati Reds as their Events Coordinator specifically assigned to the mascot program. He has been the actor behind Horsepower at Kentucky Speedway for the past three years. And yes, Nick says it is hot in the suit. But adds, “when you’re having fun you don’t notice the heat so much. You just have to be careful to not let your body overdo it. Cramps, nausea and flu-like symptoms are warning signs that your body is overheating. Keeping hydrated is critical.”
In the Mascot Costume
Nobody wants to see their team’s mascot pass out on the field from heat exhaustion. Nick has a routine that helps him prep for events on hot days. “It starts the night before, hydration is not an instant process. You begin pushing fluids the day before the event.” Taking breaks and refreshing is important, you work them in when the crowd’s attention is focused on other things happening.”
The costume does not offer the best view, “it’s like looking through a Pringles can.” According to Nick, “you feel the fans reaction rather than see it. It’s fun to be the mascot escort occasionally to experience the response from those interacting with the character.
As you can imagine Nick has seen a lot of things in 20 years behind the mascot mask. Asked for a favorite story he responds quickly. For the Reds, Nick has portrayed Gapper. The fuzzy red creature dressed in a Cincinnati Reds jersey running around the confines of Riverfront Stadium. Another spoiler alert! In costume, Gapper’s head sits atop Nick’s head. His view is just below Gapper’s chin. During a baseball game, Nick as Gapper is working the grandstand. A fan takes offense to Gapper blocking his view. The fan confronts Gapper nose to nose and proceeds to lecture the mascot for this breach of protocol. Nick stands patiently, looking at the fan’s chest until he’s done and somehow manages not to bust out laughing.
Nick points to hospital visits as the most rewarding and occasionally the most challenging part of the job. “Seeing a kid’s eyes light up and experience a few minutes of joy amid difficult circumstances is priceless.” Some of Nick’s most memorable moments revolve around the entire family’s experience as siblings and parents join in the fun.
Nick recalls a painful memory and the eyes mist up. That’s when you realize how much he takes the job to heart. On a visit to a Ronald McDonald House Nick was asked to stop in a see a specific patient on the intensive care floor. When Gapper walks in the young man is lying in bed wearing a Cub’s hat. Gapper immediately gets on the young man for his choice of fan apparel. As the boy and mascot trade jabs, the young man cackles with laughter. And for a moment there is no pain, no illness, no suffering. They are magically transported to a special place, “There’s no crying in baseball.”
Until a few months later when Nick receives a letter from the boy’s mother. It contains a photograph of the pair snapped that day and a note of thanks for providing a brief respite during a dark time. She shares with Nick that her son passed away shortly after the visit. Nick cherishes the picture.
See if you can catch a glimpse of Horsepower on television during this weekend’s races at Kentucky Speedway. Or better yet, it’s only a five-hour drive from Detroit right down I-75. Make it a Saturday road trip. For sure, make plans now to attend next year and say hello to Horsepower in person.