The right stuff
NASCAR is a conservative crowd -- and proud of itPosted: Wednesday February 28, 2001 5:06 PM
Updated: Saturday March 24, 2001 5:46 PM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
When it comes to politics, stock car racing is the unabashed sports leader.
No other professional sport brags of having its guy in the White House. And no other sport -- from the offspring of late NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. to the big-name drivers to the wealthy track and team owners -- comes down so staunchly on the less-government-is-better Republican side of the aisle.
Even if they were so united, the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball wouldn't risk being so straightforward about their political leanings. But this is an almost exclusively white, conservative racing crowd, and proud of it.
And nowhere is it more evident than in the sport's financial support of political candidates.
Almost 90 percent of the checks written by those affiliated with NASCAR flow to Republican candidates, according to a CNNSI.com computer analysis of federal campaign contributions. That's more than a half-million dollars for congressional, senatorial and presidential races since 1996, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and local candidates.
Professional athletes and sports leagues, in general, aren't enormous contributors to political campaigns. And when they do donate, they often hedge their bets by spreading contributions to both major parties.
Baseball players union boss Don Fehr, for example, wrote $1,000 checks during the presidential primaries to George W. Bush, Al Gore, Bill Bradley and John McCain. Cincinnati Reds owner Carl Lindner contributed $1.4 million to Republicans and $1 million to Democrats -- including $2,000 each to a real political odd couple, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., now the U.S. attorney general.
The racing crowd, however, is not afraid to pick sides.
"As far as any strategic plan, I don't know,'' Penske Corporation spokesman Don Luginbuhl said of his boss' giving. "It's a personal thing."
Campaign contributions, however, are not only public information, but also available on a number of Web sites (www.FECInfo.com, www.followthemoney.org, www.opensecrets.org, www.commoncause.org).
NASCAR's Republican affiliation runs far deeper than money, however. We're talking traditional values. It's a sport where drivers often follow their dads or brothers behind the wheel and regulations control their lifestyles.
Smith openly gushed over Bush's NASCAR ties at a media breakfast in Charlotte, N.C., a few days before attending the new president's inauguration in Washington. At every table in the banquet room sat a snapshot of the new president and Smith taken at Texas Motor Speedway.
"I want to congratulate all you wonderful people who went to the polls and voted,'' gushed Smith, owner of the Fort Worth track. "I think you have a gentleman . . . that loves racing."
Unlike other major sports, which routinely demand sweetheart stadium deals while holding cities hostage, stock car folks are proud to pay the freight for their multimillion-dollar facilities, most of which seat hundreds of thousands of fans.
But that doesn't mean NASCAR doesn't want friendly political treatment for track owners like Smith and the Frances, who've successfully lobbied for state-built public roads to help bring fans to their tracks.
While Bush was governor, Texas spent about $65 million on highway projects near his Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, including major improvements to Highway 114 and a recently completed 3.9-mile bypass to the track, said Smith.
"The state of Texas, they have done some wonderful things in connection with Texas Motor Speedway. That highway has been tremendously improved, but it's also a daily [traffic] problem they had," said Smith.
All this is perfectly legal -- and probably money well spent, as anyone who's ever sat in race-day traffic can attest. Of course, Smith -- whose corporation has spent almost $10 million itself since 1996 to expedite road projects -- didn't forget the governor's support.
Contrast that with the harsh rebuff that Democrat Bill Clinton received in 1992 at Darlington Raceway while campaigning for the presidency.
"It was rude, to be honest,'' said Eddie Gossage, executive vice president/general manager of Texas Motor Speedway. "I'm talking in terms of booing ...airplanes flying over, saying, 'Clinton is a draft dodger.' Banners on the back of planes and stuff. He got a very cold reception from the fans, the competitors -- everybody.''
By last November's election, Bush's good-guy reputation made him the favorite of the racing crowd. Driver-turned-broadcaster Darrell Waltrip stumped for Bush in Tennessee and Kentucky, both of which went Republican. Waltrip campaigned for Bush's father in 1992 ("He and I got to be kind of buddies'''), and his latest efforts earned him an invitation to George W's inauguration.
"It's important for the sport to align itself with whomever is in power,'' Waltrip said. "It's good when somebody says, 'Do you know about NASCAR?' [and you can say,] 'Yes, I do.'''
But aside from party labels, what separates a Democrat from a Republican in the eyes of racers?
"Just as a lot of Hollywood folks tend to agree with liberal Democrats on their issues, NASCAR folks tend to be Republicans and conservative, and therefore to support conservative issues and conservative candidates,'' said Kyl, a second-term Republican. "NASCAR is also a bit more closely held in a sense. You have the France family. So it's not as dispersed, as broad-based as, say, professional basketball or baseball.''
Away from the track, the lawyers and business-types protect the sport, watchful of potentially harmful legislation such as environmental efforts or restrictions that might affect fuel costs.
"We're always monitoring political or regulatory issues that affect us, and therefore remain in communication with those that represent us at all levels, whether a city councilman or state representative or someone at the federal level,'' said Sue Santa, ISC senior director of public and legal affairs.
Some politicians clearly understand NASCAR's clout. Six of the top 10 professional sporting events in terms of local economic impact last year were Winston Cup races, according to a Sports Business Journal survey. And there is no ignoring a sport that draws hundreds of thousands of people each weekend, as well as millions of dollars in sponsorship money from major U.S. corporations.
"Stick your head in some of these corporate suites [at the tracks],'' says one corporate executive, "and you'll be stunned by the politicians you see. And when they're not mingling with business types, they're in the garage area rubbing shoulders with drivers and owners.''
"You see more politicians probably at races than ballgames or other sporting events,'' said Waltrip, who retired in third place on the all-time win list. "It's a blue-collar sport for the most part. You've got the auto industry involved. We race cars, American-made cars. The sponsors that are involved with the sport, a lot of them are big national corporations.
"So it's kind of a mutual admiration society when you put it all on paper.''