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The right stuff

NASCAR is a conservative crowd -- and proud of it

Posted: Wednesday February 28, 2001 5:06 PM
Updated: Saturday March 24, 2001 5:46 PM

  Bill France NASCAR owner Bill France and his family have donated at least $27,000 to the Republican Party in the past four years. Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport

By Mike Fish,

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 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.

  • Only NASCAR played a role normally filled by trade unions at last summer's political conventions, hosting a "Race to Victory" luncheon for Republicans and parading drivers Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Ward Burton and Ricky Rudd, along with team owner Joe Gibbs.

  • NASCAR and the Frances organized a 1999 fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., owner of one of the Senate's most conservative voting records and a friend of the family's speedway in Phoenix.

  • President Bush received at least 11 checks of $1,000 from the sport. Al Gore drew a single $1,000 contribution.

  • More than $100,000 in federal election contributions has come from the France family, which owns NASCAR and 11 major racetracks, and top officials of International Speedway Corporation, which also is controlled by the Frances. Seventy percent of those donations have gone to Republicans.

    Eddie Gossage, George Bush and Bruton Smith are on the same page when it comes to the growth of motor sports in Texas. Texas Motor Speedway  
    The sport's biggest spender is Roger Penske, whose vast holdings include the Rusty Wallace No. 2 Miller Lite race team. More than half of Penske's over $300,000 in political contributions has gone to the Republican National Committee, but he and several employees also gave $21,000 to Dennis Wicker, who was defeated in North Carolina's Democratic primary for governor.

    "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 (,,,

    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.

    Hendrick and the Democrats
    Rick Hendrick, a prominent NASCAR team owner and registered Republican, made $14,000 in political donations in 1996 - all but $1,000 of it to Democrats, including $10,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

    Hendrick also gave $2,000 to former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American who unsuccessfully challenged conservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in 1990 and 1996. In contrast, basketball icon Michael Jordan refused an endorsement request from Gantt's people in '90, saying, "Republicans buy sneakers too."

    Hendrick was convicted of mail fraud in 1997 and pardoned by President Clinton in December. It didn't hurt that his attorney, John Arrowood, coordinated Clinton's 1992 North Carolina campaign or that former South Carolina Gov. Robert McNair, a Democrat, wrote a letter on behalf of Hendrick's request for a pardon. 

    One of the true believers is Bruton Smith, a wealthy tycoon who pushes the stock car racing agenda harder than anyone. He's chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., a $1.9 billion publicly traded company that controls six major tracks.

    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.

    Cashing In
    These contributions were made to George W. Bush's inaugural fund:
    $100,000 each 
    A.G. Spanos
    Owner of San Diego Chargers 
    America Online
    Parent company of Turner Broadcasting 
    Anheuser-Busch Co.  
    Carl Lindner
    Owner of the Cincinnati Reds  
    Coca-Cola Co.  
    Daniel Snyder
    Owner of Washington Redskins
    Ford Motor Co.  
    General Motors  
    George Argyros
    Former owner of the Seattle Mariners
    Jerry Perenchio
    Chairman of Univision/sports promoter 
    Pepsi-Cola. Co.  
    Peter O'Malley
    Former owner of LA Dodgers 
    Manufacturer of Viagra 
    Rupert Murdoch
    Owner of FOX TV  
    San Diego Chargers  
    The Washington Post  
    Tom Benson
    Owner of New Orleans Saints  
    $50,000 each 
    Home Depot  
    $20,000 each 
    Robert Tisch
    Part owner of New York Giants  
    Note: Bush's inaugural fund raised more than $27 million overall
    With nearly 200,000 fans at Texas Motor Speedway in 1999, Bush was invited to serve as honorary starter and spend the afternoon mingling with the NASCAR crowd. The presidential candidate also started last summer's Pepsi 400 at Daytona.

    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.''

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