Stock car racing is a populist sport. That's the whole point. "When NASCAR was formed in 1948, there was a definite shortage of new cars in the postwar era," the association's Web site recalls. "The feeling was that race fans wouldn't stand for new cars being beat up on a race track while they were driving a rattle-trap prewar automobile." The tradition persists: Stock cars are standard-issue cars—Fords, Pontiacs—modified for racing. No Lamborghinis.
The stereotype of the NASCAR fan is male, Southern, rural, blue collar—and Republican. The National Rifle Association advertises at NASCAR speedways for a reason. "NASCAR nation is NRA nation," says Wayne LaPierre, the association's executive vice president and CEO.
Well, guess who's targeting those NASCAR dads? George W. Bush, of course. Last week, he welcomed a delegation of NASCAR drivers to the White House. But also targeting them is ... Howard Dean? They appear to be the group Dean had in mind when he told the Democratic National Committee, "White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them."
Are NASCAR fans really swing voters? Maybe. Steve Jarding, who managed Mark Warner's successful Democratic campaign for Virginia governor two years ago, says of the NASCAR constituency, "When you reach out and talk to them, they're very likely to say, 'You know, we thought we were Republican. But we're going to go with this guy now because he's talking our language, our culture.' "
NASCAR claims 75 million fans. It's big in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles—not just Darlington, S.C. Polling conducted in September by the Tarrance Group (Republican) and Lake Snell Perry & Associates (Democratic) found 19 percent of voters identifying themselves as NASCAR fans. Forty percent of those fans are women, 20 percent are minorities, and 60 percent live outside the Southeast. They are more affluent than average Americans— 42 percent earn between $40,000 and $100,000 a year. After all, tickets to NASCAR events cost between $40 and $100.
In June, NASCAR announced a 10-year, roughly $750 million sponsorship deal with Nextel Communications to replace longtime sponsor R.J. Reynolds and Winston cigarettes. Next year, NASCAR's Winston Cup will become the Nextel Cup. Cellphones do not suggest the image of a tobacco-spitting redneck driving a pickup truck with a Confederate flag.
NASCAR fans aren't downscale. They're middle Americans. With an obsession. "NASCAR is a way of life. It's a lifestyle," NASCAR President Mike Helton told the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-Sentinel. "Lifestyle" is a pretty '60s term. Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications, defends it. "It becomes a lifestyle because the fans are very loyal to whoever their favorite driver and team are," Hunter says. "They're very loyal to the sponsors of the cars. They live it week in and week out. They can't get enough."
Researchers say that NASCAR fans are three times as likely as nonfans to buy products from companies that sponsor the sport. Buying the sponsors' products is the fans' way of showing loyalty to a car or driver, such as Dale Earnhardt, whose death in 2001 moved millions of Americans the way the loss of few athletes could. That kind of loyalty explains why dozens of Fortune 500 companies sponsor events and teams.
It also explains why politicians like to link up with NASCAR fans. In 1971, Richard Nixon was the first president to invite a race car driver, Richard Petty, to the White House. In 1984, Ronald Reagan became the first president to attend a NASCAR race. The first President Bush attended Petty's final race at Daytona on July 4, 1992.
What about Democrats? Mark Warner sponsored a NASCAR vehicle when he ran for governor in 2001. His campaign strategist, David "Mudcat" Saunders, saw it as the key to Warner's rural strategy. "Warner was from Connecticut!" Saunders declares. "Yet we were the first gubernatorial candidate or Senate Democratic candidate in a generation to carry rural Virginia."
On the other hand, when candidate Bill Clinton showed up at a NASCAR race during the 1992 campaign, he was booed. Saunders maintains it had nothing to do with Clinton's politics. "These are religious people. But I tell you, you could bring Jesus himself out there, and if he started to give a speech at a NASCAR event ...," Saunders said, adding, "Bubba wants to see the race start."
Democrats say they have an economic message for NASCAR fans, some of whom have lost their jobs during the Bush presidency. But to get NASCAR fans to listen, you have to show them that you respect their values. Especially their No. 1 value—patriotism. "You will find very few arenas in the country that are more patriotic than the Winston Cup races," Michigan Speedway President Brett Shelton told The Detroit News. "I think the patriotism that exists is the overriding characteristic of our sport."
NASCAR is a daredevil sport. It's all about risk-taking and nerve. Not unlike President Bush's Iraq policy, and his tax cuts and his plans to remake Medicare and Social Security. Not necessarily reckless, but bold and nervy. "NASCAR fans feel like the president is one of them," Hunter said.
Democrats, on the other hand, have become the party of the safety net. At NASCAR events, there are no safety nets.