NASCAR dads - now you see them, now you don't

The electoral fight over a subculture that runs deeper than a beer can

If you were in the market for automobile decorations this was a good place to be this past weekend. There was an entire board full of window stickers featuring Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) urinating on various words and phrases - "tailgaters," "Saddam Hussein," and "work." Looking for more than simple bodily function humor? There was another board full of witticisms such as, "Pass with care, I chew tobacco" and "I sure miss my wife. I wish I had better aim."

There were more than just stickers available, of course. There were jackets and hats and the ear-splitting sound of engines roaring around 1.017 miles of asphalt. This past weekend, Rockingham was more than a sleepy town of 10,000 in the south-central manufacturing part of the state. It was temporary home to 50,000-plus stock-car racing fans - capital of what sportscasters like to call "NASCAR Nation." And as such, it was the prime destination for a "NASCAR dad."

If you've picked up a paper or glanced at a newscast in the past few weeks you've heard of the NASCAR dad. He's key to this year's presidential race, we're told - a political riddle in a mullet, an electoral battleground in a Hooter's T-shirt. Perhaps you're a little skeptical, remembering the demographic ghosts of elections past - "soccer moms," "waitress moms." And you wonder if the whole thing is a little too pat. Why do these demographic groups always have three syllables anyway? Why do they keep changing? Do NASCAR dads even exist?

The whole demographic grouping game has always been problematic to me. Take soccer moms, for instance. A lot of kids from a lot of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds play soccer. Are their mothers really the same? And in the end did they all vote alike? It seemed the media infatuation with them ended as soon as election day rolled around. But I kind of grasped the concept: mothers very involved in their children's lives and focused on issues effecting kids. And I was willing to cut the pollsters some slack on waitress moms. I'd imagine mothers who work as waitresses do share some economic concerns, if nothing else. But the entire NASCAR dad construction sounds bogus - at least the way the press frames it. How can 75 million loyal followers, as NASCAR claims it has, be boiled down to such a tidy phrase?

Still there are important believers out there - President Bush, for one. The president went to the Daytona 500, NASCAR's annual kickoff, two weeks ago to commune with such dads, and even went into the broadcast booth to talk about his love of racing. "I love speed," the president said, semimemorably. It has long been assumed that the NASCAR vote is overwhelmingly Republican - for good reason. Your average NASCAR race looks like a big patriotic slice of "red America" from the armed-services recruiters outside the track, to the fighter-jet prerace flyover, to the country music blaring from thousands of SUVs. So if the powers that be believe in the NASCAR dad, who is he, anyway? To understand that, you have to have some sense of NASCAR. And when you actually attend a race you quickly learn it's different from other sports - more of an event or a spectacle than an athletic contest.

A culture of one long left turn

Take last Sunday's race, the Subway 400. It was 3 1/2 hours long - but the real scene had been going on for days before the race. The field across from the North Carolina Speedway was a sea of hundreds of trailers, pickups, and vendors - a cross between a 21st century Hooverville and a college tailgate party. This mass of humanity is a part of NASCAR and it isn't just a campsite, it's a small city full of people walking, talking, grilling, and wondering if $20 is too much for a Dale Earnhardt Jr. hat. Entertainment for many is a can of Budweiser and a boombox, and at night the smoke of hundreds of campfires permeates the air. This is more than just going to a ball game.

As a sport, NASCAR is at once the most and least accessible competition you'll ever see. The rules are simple: 43 cars race around an oval at great speed - first one to reach the set distance wins. For true fans, that's enough. They thrill to the blur of colors flying by, the deafening roar of engines, and the smell of burning gasoline and oil. The nonfan understands the elemental excitement of derring-do and immense skill, but hasn't the stamina for hours of left turns.

And NASCAR may be the most American of sports in its abiding belief in the commercial tie-in. Did it sell out? No, it bought in. Tracks, cars, drivers, and even fans, are covered in ads. As fans of other sports fight losing battles to keep their games "pure," NASCAR and its fans have not only acceded to the reality of American commercialism, they've embraced it. Cars and drivers are sponsored by stores and products, and their fans in turn support those companies and gladly lend out their bodies as advertising space as well. So you see entire families of Tony Stewart fans dressed head-to-toe in orange Home Depot wear, or Dale Jarrett followers celebrating the virtues of United Parcel Service brown, or Mark Martin's army in Viagra jackets - though for some reason you don't see guys sporting that jacket much.

The question is whether NASCAR's uniqueness translates to an actual "voting bloc." Here things get trickier.

There's no question that NASCAR's fans are different from other fans. The beer and the cars are still overwhelmingly domestic. There aren't a lot of hip-hop sounds coming out of the Chevy pickups. Howard Dean's favorite demographic - "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" - is present in abundance. In fact, the Stars and Bars is everywhere - on shirts, visors, bandannas, and yes, flags. They may also be here in tattoo form, but there are some things you just don't ask a 300-pound man in a "Rehab is for quitters" T-shirt - or his girlfriend.

As homogeneous as ZZ Top and golf

Yet they aren't a homogeneous group of ZZ Top look alikes. Certainly, some look willing to test the whole "No shirt, no shoes, no service" concept, but others wear golf shirts and talk stock options. The fan numbers themselves suggest diversity. NASCAR's estimate of 75 million fans is laughably high - even Daytona, the highest rated race of the season, had only 34 million TV viewers. But that's a lot of people; so many, it seems, that any pat categorization is certain to be wrong. In fact, Richmond County, where Rockingham sits, went with Al Gore in 2000, while much of the rest of NASCAR country voted Bush.

On top of that is the fact that NASCAR is changing. These aren't your dad's NASCAR dads. Last year, Winston, a cigarette brand, sponsored the main circuit. This year, it's cellphone operator Nextel.

And Nascar is so keen on developing and extending its reach, it is considering dumping "The Rock," as the track is known here, in favor of a more upscale locale - one with more soccer moms, perhaps?

Considering all the questions about NASCAR dads, what's everyone fighting over? Can a candidate really aim to carry the whole vote of such a massive thing? No. The fight will take place around the fringes, in the subgroups of the demographic.

Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who coined the term "NASCAR dad" last year, says the goal for her party isn't to win the entire fan base, but to "pick off 10 to 15 percent of them." In her mind, "them" means white males, 35 to 55, in the blue-collar jobs most vulnerable in the current economy. "If we can do that, we can make it very difficult for the president to put together a winning coalition. These voters aren't just in the South, they are all over. They can tip states," she says.

The real race for the NASCAR dad vote might best be understood by asking whether NASCAR dad is defined by the "NASCAR" side of the equation, or the "dad" side. The president wants, as much as possible, to bind the vote together by its NASCARness, by its red- America culture. He served in the National Guard, he likes speed, he's a race fan - just like a NASCAR dad. The Democrats want to exploit the cleavages that exist within a group of millions of people. They believe John Kerry's military service neutralizes national defense and allows them to say, "Sure, you like racing, but if you're a blue collar dad, isn't job security more important?"

The election is a long way off, but to listen to race fans here, the Democrats have a shot. The Rock didn't exactly hold a politically charged atmosphere last weekend. Despite the "proud to be an American" feel - the Army, Navy and National Guard all sponsor cars - asking about politics got lots of blank looks and guys saying they don't plan to vote.

There were definitely a lot of Bush supporters in attendance. "I'm sticking with the president," said one 40-something former Navy man. "He did the right thing in Iraq and we can't change leaders now."

But you could also hear some doubts about Mr. Bush. NASCAR Nation may, overall, be reliable Bush country, but he faces a real issue with some of these voters - the economy, which all, for and against the president, cited as a serious problem.

"This is a poor area. We haven't gotten a lot of benefit from Republican policies," said a middle-aged state employee. He voted for Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate in 2000, because he "just didn't like" Al Gore. But he plans to vote Democratic this year.

And one middle-agedman who voted for Bush in 2000 said he didn't plan to this time: "Usually in a war, the rich pay more taxes to help offset the burden. Why not this time?"

One fan, told that he's part of this year's celebrity demographic and his vote is thought to be a sure thing for Republicans, laughed: "Not the fans I know. But I guess it all depends on where the race is happening."

Here in Richmond County, people love NASCAR, but unemployment is over 9 percent. To many, that's more important.

It many not be how many race fans there are, but how many Richmond Counties.

Hard times, fragmented subculture

So, yes, Virginia - and Maryland and Massachusetts - there are NASCAR dads. Like most American subcultures however, they're subject to fragmentation. It's not NASCAR dads. It's white collar and blue collar NASCAR dads. Northern and Southern NASCAR dads. When you look at all the variables, fragmentation isn't just possible, it's probable. And as long as times stay hard for a good portion of them, the president is going to find them hard to bind together.

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