The politics of being a NASCAR dad

By R.V. Scheide

Pssssst! Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I’m a NASCAR dad. It’s not something I necessarily advertise all that much–my affinity for stock-car racing has been somewhat of a guilty pleasure for most of my adult life. There’s just something that’s more than a little bit decadent about a sport that features fossil-fuel-guzzling automobiles racing around in circles while the rest of the world steadily depletes the oil supply. But what can I say? I’m addicted to speed.

Since last year, when my creed was identified by Democratic Party pollsters as the coming presidential election’s demographique du jour, I’ve held my tongue as a steady stream of pundits and prognosticators lacking any knowledge whatsoever about the sport has patently stereotyped my kind. But now, with the election season heating up, it’s gone too far and I feel compelled to speak out on behalf of all NASCAR dads.

The breaking point for me came with this year’s Daytona 500, held on Sunday, Feb. 15. Daytona is the crown jewel in the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing’s grueling 42-race season. It’s also the season opener, and though I’ve never attended, I’ve watched it live on television ever year since I was three. I’m now 44, which demonstrates, I think, the minimum level of commitment required to qualify as a true NASCAR dad: you have to have a history with the sport.

That, I have. I’ll never forget the crash-and-burn finish to the 1976 Daytona 500, David Pearson and arch-rival Richard Petty flying flat out at nearly 200 mph on the final lap of the two-and-half-mile super speedway, slamming off of each other in the final turn, both cars careening into the grass infield, Petty’s mangled Dodge stalling and Pearson’s battered Mercury limping to the finish line for the win. The 1976 Daytona is considered one of the all-time greatest races in any form of motor sports, and I watched it live on TV, screaming along the whole way.

The racing at Daytona has gotten slightly duller since the heady days when Petty, my boyhood hero and the acknowledged king of the sport, amassed 202 career victories, a record that will probably never be matched. Nevertheless, thanks to the booming popularity of NASCAR, which boasts 75 million fans nationwide, it’s the Daytona 500, not the Indianapolis 500, that’s today considered the “great American race.”

How do I know all this stuff? Because I’m a NASCAR dad. I look forward to the Daytona 500 more than I do the Super Bowl (unless the Niners or the Raiders happen to be playing in it). Apparently, I am not alone and Madison Avenue has taken notice. Stock-car racing, a sport pioneered by Southern bootleggers, has gone big-time mainstream. For the past several years, the commercials premiered on the Daytona 500 TV broadcast have rivaled the Super Bowl’s. This year, NASCAR dumped longtime sponsor R.J. Reynolds, favoring telecommunications corporation Nextel over the tobacco giant. It’s kind of hard to think of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. competing for anything other than the Winston Cup, but in the end, as all true NASCAR dads know, it still all comes down to the racing.

Which is why I tuned in Sunday morning, Feb. 15, at the appropriate time. I couldn’t care less that Jeff Gordon drives for DuPont or Junior drives for Budweiser or Tony Stewart drives for Home Depot. It’s fender-bending action I’m after, the visceral rush I get watching drivers push themselves and their automobiles beyond the limits, sometimes to victory, sometimes into the guardrail, and infrequently, in cases such as Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash in the final laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, straight to meet their maker. That’s the kind of drama that makes other sports pale in comparison. NASCAR is a gateway drug, and I’ve been addicted since I was a small child.

Still, nothing in my 40-odd years as a stock-car-racing fan prepared me for the start of this year’s race. With all the chatter about NASCAR dads being the 2004 presidential election’s most sought-after swing voters (as soccer moms allegedly were in the ’90s), I should have been better prepared. Yet waiting for this year’s Grand Marshall, Ben Affleck, to deliver the customary, “Gentleman, start your engines!” I was caught totally by surprise when President George W. Bush trotted out to do the honors instead.

It’s the smirk that gets me. President Bush may be the most self-consciously narcissistic politician to ever hold the office. His thin, pinched lips betray a man who knowingly plans every public appearance for his own personal gain. “Gentleman, start your engines!” he seemed to thunder, “for the NASCAR dads are mine!” OK, he didn’t really say that last part. But that’s what the smirk meant, and in the days following the race, I watched with bemusement as media accounts seconded the notion that the entire NASCAR nation was solidly in the Bush camp.

“This is George Bush country here,” NASCAR chairman Brian France assured Reuters. In an Associated Press article, Texas driver Terry Labonte explained why most racers steer to the left but vote to the right. “I guess most of ’em just have a lot of common sense,” he said. “I like to say we’re true Americans. We don’t fall for as much crap as those guys on the other side of the aisle.”

So much for the drivers. But what about the fans? “The NASCAR dad voting bloc leans heavily toward Republicans, but Democrats are hoping to make inroads by emphasizing economic issues,” Reuters reported.

Just in case it wasn’t clear who the heck we’re talking about, the Miami Herald chimed in. “While there’s no clear agreement on who is really a NASCAR Dad, it’s generally accepted that the term should not be seen simply as a substitute for ‘Bubba’–the beer-swilling, tobacco-spitting stereotype that long has been a shorthand for stock-car-racing fan.”

So, let me see if I have this straight: the long-held stereotypical view of the stock-car-racing fan is that of a beer-swilling, tobacco-spitting Bubba? And the new improved NASCAR dad is a slightly more evolved species? Sound awfully similar to a Howard Dean stump speech on rebel flags and pickup trucks. Is this really who NASCAR dads are?

I don’t think so. I’m not going to deny that there’s a certain conservative element in NASCAR. After he retired from racing in 1992, Richard Petty ran for secretary of state in his native North Carolina, the birthplace of stock-car racing. I remember reading that his politics were somewhere to the right of Jesse Helms. That didn’t diminish his accomplishments on the race track to me, and it didn’t fool the voters of North Carolina, who unlike their Californian counterparts, declined to put their state’s biggest celebrity in office.

My point is that true NASCAR dads can see through this sort of subterfuge for the political pandering that it is. When it comes to the sport, there’s only one thing that matters. As Richard Petty’s racing son Kyle told AP about his colleagues, “I don’t care if they’re Republicans or Democrats, I just care if they can run fast.”

Running fast on the racetrack is what NASCAR’s all about, whether it’s the winding road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma County or the banked super-speedway at Daytona. This year’s Daytona was another nail-biter, with Dale Earnahrdt Jr. hanging on for the win three years after his father was killed at the very same race track. It was a historic finish, but is was not witnessed by President Bush, who took off in Air Force One slightly past the race’s halfway mark.

Leaving before the end of the race. That’s the kind of faux pas true NASCAR dads aren’t likely to forget.

True NASCAR dads probably already know that ‘NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience’ opens Friday, March 12. Soccer moms might want to call 415.369.6200.

From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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