President George Bush mingled with fans at the Daytona 500.
Photos by Sherryl Creekmore/NASC
HAMPTON, Ga. The dads attending races this weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway come with children in hand, beer in the cooler and a big enough credit line to keep souvenir vendors swimming in profits.
They eat hot dogs, wear Jeff Gordon hats, salute the flag and know exactly how many points Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to pass Kurt Busch in the Chase for the Championship.
And if NASCAR has its way, "NASCAR Dads" will vote Republican on Tuesday.
Eight years after "Soccer Moms" helped put Bill Clinton into the White House, NASCAR is using is collective influence to help President George W. Bush win re-election.
Drivers, car owners and NASCAR officials have donated thousands of dollars to the Bush campaign, and some have gone on the campaign trail in battleground states like Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
It's new territory for a sport once considered too simple and too insignificant to matter. But now that it's the No. 1 sport in America in attendance and second-best to the National Football League in television ratings, stock- car racing fans particularly "NASCAR Dads" could be an important voting bloc in this year's election.
"NASCAR is America," said driver Kirk Shelmerdine. "These are 9-to-5 people who drive Chevys, Fords and Dodges. These are people who work for a paycheck. And believe me, there's a lot of them out there."
Shelmerdine's Ford has gone without significant sponsorship all season. Last month he decided to put "Bush-Cheney '04" on the rear fenders to honor the president's scheduled visit to the New Hampshire Internation-al Speedway.
Bush canceled the trip to visit hurricane-ravaged Florida, but Shelmerdine said the decals proved to be so popular among fans, he decided to keep them on through this weekend's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta. That space rents for as much as $25,000 a race, but Shelmerdine feels so strongly about the election he's donated the space.
"I guess politically, most people are to my left," Shelmerdine said. "I'm not educated enough about everything that goes on to debate it with anyone, but I'm very much against liberal ways when it comes to politics. This was the way to make our little statement.
Some drivers and race teams paint their allegiance on their cars.
Photos by Sherryl Creekmore/NASC
"I do it just to tick the liberals off."
Nine of the 10 drivers in the Chase for the Championship have officially endorsed President Bush's re-election, according to the president's campaign Web site. The only driver who didn't sign up was Gordon, who said his vote would be kept secret.
A quick poll of the garage area last weekend resulted in some dramatic figures for the president. Of the 31 drivers asked, 30 said they were voting for Bush.
Car owners Eddie Wood and Jack Roush, drivers Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons and Mark Martin and former crew chief Jeff Hammond last week visited three states in support of the president.
"I just believe in Bush. It's that plain and simple. He's done a good job with the hand he's been dealt," Wood said.
There is nothing about NASCAR on the Kerry-Edwards Web site.
NASCAR has become an important base because it seems to represent a huge slice of America. More than 42 percent of NASCAR fans had an income of greater than $50,000, compared to 39 percent of the overall population, according to a survey conducted by NASCAR three years ago.
More important, that base expands far from the sport's Southern roots with 62 percent coming north and west of the Mason-Dixon line.
Bush visited the season-opening Daytona 500 and was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of 180,000 and an even more enthusiastic pit road. Elliott served as his host as Bush walked down pit road and shook hands with crewmen.
"I haven't seen John Kerry at a racetrack, but I've seen George Bush," Wood said.
The Republican Party has parked a voter registration bus at many races this year. Drivers, including Rusty Wallace, often worked the registrations. The Democratic Party also has used volunteers at several races to sign up potential voters.
"It's the first time I've seen NASCAR be so politically motivated," Parsons said.
Shelmerdine said the sport's popularity will make it an important target for elections to come.
"NASCAR used to be a drop in the bucket as far as number of people paying attention and watching," he said. "Now it's getting to be really big numbers."
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