Revvin’ Up Votes for 50 Years

Posted February 15, 2008 at 6:45pm

The day before last month’s South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) campaign touted a key endorsement from Cale Yarborough.

Calling Yarborough “well-loved by thousands of Americans,” McCain told Palmetto State voters that “I am grateful to have his support.”

Cale who?

Sunday’s 50th running of the Daytona 500 officially began the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup stock car racing season. The sport’s political season, however, hit the gas more than a month ago when the legendary driver gave the thumb’s up to the now-GOP presidential front- runner.

Yarborough, a household name in the sport’s Mesopotamia that runs south from Virginia to Florida, won a record three consecutive series championships and is beloved for the grit he showed in a nationally televised fistfight during the Daytona 500 nearly 20 years ago.

A clip of the 1979 scuffle has been viewed nearly 90,000 times on YouTube.com.

David Poole, who hosts a daily NASCAR radio show on Sirius satellite radio, called the sport the “grand stage for politicians,” primarily for Republicans in the South, who share an unofficial and unique relationship with management and the NASCAR fan base.

“NASCAR has tried very hard to walk a fine line: They don’t necessarily want to be identified with one side or another, although you’re a lot more likely to see a Republican candidate at a NASCAR event than a Democratic candidate,” Poole said. “NASCAR’s politics is ‘we love America — and that’s all we want to say about it.’”

Poole added: “Whoever chooses to play that patriotism card is right down their alley.”

Ramsey Poston, a NASCAR spokesman, said the relationship between politics and the sport goes back to 1959, when a driver put a John F. Kennedy for President bumper sticker on his car. President Ronald Reagan later pardoned NASCAR legend Junior Johnson for a 1956 federal conviction related to his family’s moonshining operation.

President Bill Clinton also pardoned Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, a rare Democratic donor within the sport, just before he left office in 2001. Hendrick, whose team includes NASCAR superstars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, spent a year under home confinement for his involvement in a bribery scheme.

Racing fans became hot political property in 2002 after Democratic pollster Celinda Lake anointed “NASCAR dads” the critical swing voters for Democrats to court.

Lake’s argument was that these working-class men had defected to George W. Bush in 2000 but could be brought back into the Democratic fold if the party could neutralize so-called values issues.

Although perhaps theoretically correct, Democrats undoubtedly had an awkward read on the sport’s inner workings: Like its fans, drivers, owners and the circuit’s controlling France family, they appear to have little in common with Democrats.

In 2004, “John Kerry came to New Hampshire and [NASCAR management] basically had to find a driver that was willing to walk around with him,” Poole said.

NASCAR hosts a yearly race in the pivotal New England primary state.

In one case, at least, Democratic research appeared to pan out. Democrat Mark Warner reportedly shelled out $28,000 to sponsor a local NASCAR team in his successful 2001 gubernatorial campaign.

The strategists behind that move then tried to take it national, according to The New York Times, arranging for the Democratic National Committee to sponsor a team of five trucks, to be called Donkey Power, that would tour the country.

DNC officials rejected the idea.

According to a Roll Call analysis of campaign finance data from the past decade, drivers and car owners in the sport’s premier NASCAR Sprint Cup series appear to have a casual — and Republican — attitude toward politics.

For example, Jimmie Johnson, who has won the sport’s championship the past two years, has written just $4,300 in campaign contribution checks during the past three years, all to Republicans. Johnson’s car, minus endorsement deals, won $7.4 million from race wins last year.

Poole suggests Johnson’s political lethargy is typical within the sport, claiming that drivers “just have no room in their lives other than what they do as a race car driver.

“Most of the drivers are totally apolitical because they’re totally acultural,” Poole said. “You ask most NASCAR drivers who played in the Super Bowl this year, they couldn’t tell you.”

Although drivers may be too busy tinkering under the hood, Marty Snider, an on-air personality for TNT’s NASCAR coverage, said the sport’s upper management has taken a decidedly different approach.

“NASCAR itself does show a Republican front,” Snider said. “If the France family decides that they want to bring George W. Bush to a race, then by all means he’s going to come to a race.” Members of the France family, who control the sport, have given some money to Democrats during the past decade, according to campaign finance records.

Snider also said the sport’s enormous popularly and homogenous fan base provide a rare forum for Republicans to reach out to large swaths of perhaps undecided voters, a strategy first successfully used by Reagan during a Daytona race in 1984.

“It’s been effective ever since, Snider said. “It’s an easy way to reach 8 million people.”

Meanwhile, NASCAR has been reluctant to rev up its lobbying on Capitol Hill. More established sports leagues — the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and even the National Hockey League — have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years drafting K Street’s most expensive talent to protect their interests in Congress. They’ve pushed back against legislative attempts to impose stricter drug screening standards on the sports, but have also engaged in debates over broadcasting, taxes and Internet gambling.

Although management “cares about the process,” league spokesman Poston said, “as a sport we don’t spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill.” Still, he said, two NASCAR-affiliated companies that run its race-day facilities do periodically weigh in on obscure tax issues.

NASCAR has hired only outside lobbyists twice in the past decade. In the late 1990s, it worked with a law firm in Daytona Beach, Fla., though the firm said there was “no pending action” that it was working on in its disclosures to the Senate.

Since April 2005, the sport has been working with J.C. Watts Cos., the shop founded by the former Oklahoma Republican Congressman, on broadening racing’s appeal to minorities. Two years ago, lobbyists at the firm worked to pass a House resolution that called on the federal government to work with the sport and historically black colleges and invest in automotive technician training programs for minorities.

The resolution was introduced by GOP Rep. Mike Rogers, whose Eastern Alabama district is home to the Talladega Superspeedway. But it also drew support from an unlikely cross-section of lawmakers. The press conference to unveil the measure was headlined by both then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.).

“They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but auto racing makes even stranger bedfellows,” said Elroy Sailor, a former Watt aide working on the NASCAR account.

Sailor said the sport is now in a “good position” to secure its first federal funds for the job-training initiative. But beyond that campaign, he said, NASCAR has shown little interest in laying down tracks inside the Beltway.

“We’ve tried to say, ‘Hey, you may want to think about having a presence here,’” he said. “But going to fundraisers — those traditional things — they really haven’t had any appetite for that. They want to race, and keep the government away, and focus on their sport.”