The next time you watch a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, pay close attention to the winning driver when he gets out of his car in Victory Lane. Directly behind him you'll see the smiling face of Miss Sprint Cup Monica Palumbo.
Palumbo is one of three women who are ambassadors for Sprint Cup racing.
Wearing her black-and-yellow Sprint race suit, Palumbo is much more than just a pretty face on pit lane. At the track, she emcees the "Sprint Experience," makes Fan View appearances and walks the garage area tweeting updates and meeting fans.
Away from the track, she hosts driver foundation events and segments on SPEED TV programs. Always quick with a smile, Palumbo is there to talk racing or pose for a picture.
The 29-year-old daughter of Francis and JoAnna Palumbo grew up in the Medearis neighborhood off Sardis Road in Charlotte. A 1999 graduate of East Mecklenburg High, Palumbo said she loved her high school years and was well-known among her peers, serving in student government and participating in theater.
"My mom always taught me to treat everyone equally," said Palumbo, and she believes her down-home sincerity is why she was chosen by the student body as homecoming queen her senior year. The honor was happily unexpected, and it set the stage for a career that has put her in the national spotlight.
As a musical theater major at East Carolina University, she decided to enter the Miss North Carolina USA pageant in 2000. To her astonishment, she won.
"I was the only girl with short hair and I was so unpolished," said Palumbo. Then a sophomore, she fulfilled her pageant duties by making weekend public appearances around the state and prepared to represent North Carolina in the Miss USA contest in February 2001.
Palumbo placed 15th in Miss USA, but more importantly was named Miss Congeniality. The timing coincided with the opening of the movie, "Miss Congeniality," starring Sandra Bullock. Warner Bros. then came calling with a movie marketing idea.
Warner liked the fact there was a resemblance between Palumbo and Bullock and that they were both affiliated with East Carolina (Bullock left ECU three credits short of a degree in drama and later was awarded an honorary degree).
In addition, Palumbo exuded the friendly personality Bullock's movie character finally developed.
Palumbo's next opportunity came when she was voted by viewers to co-host "LIVE! with Regis and Kelly" in New York when co-host Kelly Ripa left for maternity leave. Palumbo was a natural in front of the camera and seamlessly followed Regis Philbin's lead. She decided acting was the direction she wanted to take.
In 2003, Palumbo decided to move from Charlotte to Los Angeles and started taking acting lessons. To pay the bills, she worked as a hostess at a restaurant. By the third year, she had gotten only a few bit parts and infomercials. She decided to call it quits.
"It was not a stable career choice," said Palumbo, and she longed to be in the South again. "I needed Bojangles' and some Southern hospitality."
Back in Charlotte, 2007 proved to be a better year. Her agent found her a gig with Motorsports Management International hosting the Bobby Labonte display at NASCAR races. In January 2008, she interviewed for the new Miss Sprint Cup squad and was chosen as one of the three girls.
Chad Willis, senior manager at Sprint for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sponsorship, said that "to thousands of NASCAR fans who follow the program, Monica Palumbo is Miss Sprint Cup. She's been with us for three complete seasons - longer than anyone else."
Willis also said Palumbo has been a tremendous representative for Sprint and the entire sport of NASCAR.
Another Sprint Cup season will start in February; look for Palumbo around the track and on Victory Lane.
She'll be that smiling face behind the driver in winner's circle.