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Racing And Politics: Not A Good Mix

Racing And Politics: Not A Good Mix

Who will win the 2008 presidential election is still anybody’s guess. But when it comes to NASCAR, who they _want_ to win isn’t even in question these days.

Considering the rash of “honorary” guests from John McCain’s presidential campaign team recently attending Sprint Cup events, the sanctioning body clearly is supporting the Republican Party ticket, and is willing to offer its services to their effort to win the White House. What NASCAR is serving up to their political party of choice is a captive audience of 100,000 motorsports fans that really came to watch a race, but are getting — whether they want it or not — a low-key partisan political rally as well.

However, truth be told, the majority of fans in attendance have no objection to the not-so-subtle support of the Republican presidential ticket at the races. Demographics show supporters of NASCAR to be overwhelmingly conservative and white, not dissimilar from the general makeup of the stereotypical Republican. All and all, Republican Party candidates and their surrogates are in “safe waters” when campaigning.

Oh, and by the way, Richard Petty offered his endorsement of the McCain / Palin ticket at Lowe’s Motor Speedway ten days ago amongst the festivities leading up to the Bank of America 500. In the meantime, the grounds of the track were heavily laced with campaign stickers, signs, and buttons for the Republican hopefuls. “What we need right now in these uncertain times is a steady hand on the wheel, a leader we can trust to put country first ahead of politics,” the King said in a prepared statement.

That possibly the most liked and known figure in NASCAR offered his public support to the Republican nominees is not at all surprising, as Petty has never made any secret of his political persuasion. He, in fact, ran for election as the Republican candidate for the Secretary of State of North Carolina. Further, Petty’s endorsement is on par with what has become the norm for other NASCAR drivers as well. During the previous presidential election cycle, nine of the Top 10 drivers openly supported the re-election bid of President George W. Bush. Additionally, many of NASCAR’s top drivers from the present and past worked to get out the Bush vote during both of his successful presidential campaigns.

To be sure, NASCAR is a bastion of support for the Republican Party, dating back to the days of the sport’s founder, Bill France. Between NASCAR, ISC, and individual France family members, public records show that about 90% of financial contributions find their way to individual Republican candidates or directly to the GOP.

So, what about the Democrats? A Democratic candidate at a NASCAR event is a rare sighting. That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts, but the reception by race fans has been less than lukewarm, as former President Bill Clinton discovered when visiting Darlington in 1992 in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the NASCAR community.

Perhaps Eddie Gossage, the Vice President / General Manager of Texas Motor Speedway, gauged the reaction best. “It was rude, to be honest. I’m talking in terms of booing and 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, competitors – everybody.”

Clearly, a NASCAR race is not the best venue for a Democrat to make friends and influence voters.

Does NASCAR really have much to gain by supporting partisan political campaigns, especially one considered by many as futile?

Well, Republican-friendly or not, it is puzzling as to why NASCAR allows itself to become involved in the no win game of politics. Republican fans of the sport will support Republican candidates regardless of whether John McCain, Cindy McCain, or Todd Palin are given a meaningless “honorary” title for a race and allowed to say hello over the PA system and give a wave to the crowd or not.

And without a doubt, should a candidate supported by the racing organization get elected, there may be some rewards for the aid and comfort lent them during their campaign. Yet, how much consideration can they expect on political matters important to the sport by a Democrat that defeats their candidate?

The risk that comes with betting on the wrong horse is greater than you think.

From simply a strategic standpoint, it would only seem prudent for the organization to cover its bets and spread the support. NASCAR is big time sports now, and they might take a lesson from their sports entertainment peers whose athletes and executives are generally reluctant to publicly support either side.

The sports support for the “The Grand Old Party” is not without risk to its own best interest, either. Supposing that a typical NASCAR crowd does, in fact, overwhelmingly sway towards the Republican candidate by a margin of 70% to
30%, what about the minority of non-Republican fans in attendance?

At Daytona during the last two presidential election periods NASCAR, drivers, and owners have politicked hard for Bush, with an estimated crowd of 200,000 spectators subject to the overt campaigning. At the 70%-30% number, there would be 60,000 paying race fans sitting amidst a mini-political rally for a candidate that they may well be opposed to.

Now, that’s certainly not a situation that many are likely to appreciate or find particularly enjoyable. Remember, a lot of race fans come only to watch a race! I know I’m not the only one that has been advised by my elders to not discuss politics or religion – especially in a crowd of strangers. Wise advice, indeed.

Besides … why does NASCAR want to mix such an honorable and enjoyable endeavor as auto racing with the nastiness of politics, anyways?

And…That’s my view from Turn 5.

“Contact Tommy Thompson”:

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