Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Politics, Religion & NASCAR – Why Can’t Drivers Endorse Their Candidate?

Every four years, the world turns its attention to one of the greatest spectacles to be witnessed by man, a contest that is seen by some as the sporting equivalent to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. For ages, it has tested the best and brightest while capturing the imagination of the planet. It’s a grueling test of intestinal fortitude, physical endurance, abject scrutiny, tireless preparation, and the excellence of execution. All of this culminates in what Jim McKay once deemed “the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat.”

I am, of course, referring to American politics and the race for the White House.

You thought I was making mention of the Olympics? Hardly; poor Michael Phelps would be gasping for air by the South Carolina primary, as even his full-length Speedo and goggles don’t stand a chance next to Hillary’s pant-suits or Sarah’s glasses. Yeah, I know: discussing politics during this time is akin to calling Kyle Farnsworth out of the bullpen with a one-run lead and the bases loaded. Exxon and Shell combined couldn’t throw that much gas on a fire.

But in our grand and vast political landscape, we see people from all walks of life lining up to have their personal and professional lives dissected and put on display at will for the media and public alike. Look at the diversity displayed in our current election cycle: A senior U.S. Senator and genuine war hero, the first African-American to be nominated for President, only the second female in history to contend for an executive office and even a guy with bad hair plugs and wooden teeth with a propensity for saying embarrassing things.

There literally is something for everyone in 2008.

Taking this a step forward, the current trend in a nation preoccupied with pop culture is that of celebrities supporting political candidates. I always found this hilarious: your average actress or musician is typically one who barely graduated high school and probably hasn’t the foggiest idea of how a bill becomes a law. Why then, would we care what a coked-up Lindsey Lohan or pontificating P-Diddy has to say on these matters?

Yeah, Jon Voight is great in Runaway Train, but I probably do not need his advice when it comes to choosing who I would prefer to be in command of our nuclear arsenal. Is America best served consulting the likes of Pamela Anderson when it comes to foreign policy directives or reforming the tax code? Poor marriage advice and silicone enhancement, perhaps… but that’s about it.

Following this trend is that of athletes using their platform and privilege as a political forum. Recently, Sports Illustrated had a piece on how Baron Davis of the Los Angeles Clippers was stumping for Barack Obama, while Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling supports John McCain. But what seems to be missing from this group so far are NASCAR drivers.

In the 2004 election, the go-to demographic that was seen as the key to winning battleground states were “NASCAR Dads,” the new pet term for average working-class Americans whose allegiance was to their family, not to a particular political party. That year, a group of drivers who were embroiled in their own Chase for the crown stumped for President Bush, with nine of the top-10 playoff contenders publicly announcing their support.

But four years later, the NASCAR bunch has been suspiciously quiet in their advocation for a particular candidate – though it is generally assumed that the majority of drivers and fans are flag-waving, gun-toting red staters, people who drive around in pickup trucks with those “Terrorist Hunting Permit” stickers in their rear windows. Indeed, the appearance of Republican nominee John McCain at NHMS Sunday – in which he spent time with drivers and crews before participating in pre-race festivities – would only seem to back up the stereotype.

But is this really the case?

Yes, there is typically a strong military showing on race weekends, and the military tends to overwhelmingly support conservative candidates. NASCAR, though, is a national sport which attracts a wide cross section of fans from any number of backgrounds. With mass appeal and a broad fanbase, why wouldn’t a driver be more inclined to support the candidate or cause of his choosing – Democrat, Republican or otherwise?

The difference, I believe, compared to other sports is endorsements in this tense economic climate. This is a sport that is built on spending other people’s money to make your fortune (kind of like the defense industry) through sponsorship dollars. And in today’s rabid and hostile political arena that often times looks like a bad day in Basra (minus the beaten effigies and a couch that someone has lit on fire), pick the calling opposite of what someone believes in and you’ve not only lost a fan… you’ve lost a sale.

Take that a step further and you’ve lost a sponsor.

Even in the face of this reality, I am of the opposite opinion. NASCAR is second only to the NFL in popularity and attendance, even by today’s dwindling standards. If you take a look at most national polls since 2000, the country is, for the most part, split down the middle: 48% Democratic, 48% Republican and 4% of people who either don’t care, can’t read or are so fed up with the system they have become more apathetic about the process than the Detroit Lions on a Sunday afternoon.

(Seriously, Lions; you guys suck, and should save everybody three hours and forfeit before the coin toss. But I digress.)

Anyways, taking into account the political division that is split equally down the middle, you stand about a 50% chance of having 50% of fans stand with you in whoever you support. Moreover, as passionate and fiercely loyal as fans are to their drivers and sponsor’s products, what better pitchmen to have on your side than the ultimate spokesman: a NASCAR driver standing next to his all-American (sorry Kyle, Denny and Michael… and Camry fan, please spare me your letters of where they are made. I know. We all know.) 900-horsepower stock car.

Think of the advertising opportunities: slapping a bumper sticker on the backside of the racecar. Advertising space on the hood. Firing up the engine at a rally to drown out the squeals of the opposition protesting across the street.

A candidate could really have fun with this!

Taking it a step further, I believe some non-Republican endorsements would probably work out to be good PR on NASCAR’s part as well. Let’s face it; in these hyper-sensitive times where environMENTALisim is the new religion that is only outdrawn by Scientology (…God as a time-traveling intergalactic space alien. Okeeeyyy…), it might not hurt to have a few greenies in your corner.

With gas hovering around $4 a gallon and Al Gore and his brood weeping that the Earth is melting, there is little about a NASCAR stocker that is friendly to the environment. It gets an optimistic five miles per gallon, blows through tires every half an hour (10 minutes if you are at Indy) and makes an incredible amount of racket that no owl or woodland critter could possibly endure.

They don’t have fingers to plug their ears with, you know.

Making nice with the enviro-crowd is not just being affable; it’s good for business. Also consider that one of NASCAR’s goals is their Drive for Diversity initiative, one that has gone by the wayside recently. Coupled with the very ugly and very public Mauricia Grant lawsuit, NASCAR has a new hurdle and perception to overcome. It’s one that was already there to a certain degree, as the majority of minorities in our country typically side with the party that is often as seen as decidedly non-NASCAR.

This is a huge group of people who could be approached by a sport that needs new fans – as it has a habit lately of alienating the old ones. It would also be a great vehicle for new sponsors as well as existing ones to put themselves in front of an audience whose support for their candidates would only be rivaled by support for their driver.

Regardless of what candidate you vote for in November, it is imperative to remember that we are all on the same team in the end. I would hope after this election cycle that the bitter rancor that has been perpetuated by BOTH sides in this country for the better part of a decade would go by the wayside.

Political bickering and debate that is on the level of Tony Eury and Dale Jr. or Zippy and Smoke is one thing; the Berserker-like mentality of swinging leather like David Starr is quite another. You might duke it out at Bristol and Martinsville – but by the time you get to Talladega, that nonsense needs to stop, and we’re quickly headed to that fast-paced superspeedway known as Election Day.

In the meantime, we’re all here for the party, so high-five your buddy next to you and try to get along with each other. Unless of course, he has a No. 24 sticker on his car… then it is your sworn duty to find new, creative and interesting ways to insult him.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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