photo credit: (AP Photo/Bob Jordan)
What is it about NASCAR that divides the left and the right possibly more bitterly than universal health care, Blackwater, or Fox News?
Last month, a Democratic staffer with the House Committee on Homeland Security who works for committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), sent out an email to colleagues regarding an ‘unusual need for whomever attending to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B,’ as well as ‘the more normal things — tetanus, diphtheria, and of course, seasonal influenza,’ – more than is necessary to visit Haiti – advising them to be thoroughly immunized before heading south from Washington and into the Red State wilderness of NASCAR country to conduct research at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway and North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway, where the Bank of America 500 was run Saturday.
This sparked a clash that has again highlighted the woeful ignorance of far too many on the left of just who it is they’re maligning, while feeding ammunition to the GOP keen to score points against their Democratic rivals. Representative Robin Hayes (R-Ala) retorted, ‘I have never heard of immunizations for domestic travel, and ... I feel compelled to ask why the heck the committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown.’ Dr. David Weber, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (political affiliation unknown) asked, ‘What do they know about NASCAR that we don't?’
Once again, the erroneous stereotype of NASCAR fans is being perpetuated as a rowdy mob of unwashed, unshaven, uncouth, uneducated, inbred, toothless, drunken, shirtless, Confederate flag tattooed, Chevy pickup drivin’, gun-totin’, tabakky-spittin’, beer-belly scratchin’ redneck hillbillies all yelling ‘show us yer tits’ at every woman who walks through the stands. Oh, and they all vote Republican, of course.
Democrats like Representative Larry Seaquist of Washington State aren’t exactly helping the polarization, either. His opposition to a NASCAR racetrack proposal just outside Seattle seems to be based on the argument that ‘these people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law’. Washington State Speaker of the House, Democrat Frank Chopp, added fuel to the fire; when asked about Richard Petty, a fairly well-known NASCAR driver then in Washington State to support the proposed track, Chopp promptly responded with the sneer, ‘You mean the guy who got picked up for DUI?’ (Petty doesn’t drink.)
First, a personal perspective, then a few hard, cold facts about just who we NASCAR fans are. Our Kid is a university professor with an IQ off the charts, while mine is mere 140+. We both have postgraduate degrees, she speaks flawlessly fluent Spanish while I speak passable French, and after spending a decade in France, I can sip two glasses of red wine and tell you which one is the merlot and which is the pinot noir. I rather doubt that either of us fit the left’s standard characterization of ‘rube’, and we both love NASCAR racing. My late father might have been more representative of the stereotypical NASCAR rube, as he was the son of a South Carolina dirt farmer and his illiterate Tennessee hillbilly wife. My dad dropped out of school at the 3rd grade to help on the farm, then joined the Coast Guard at 16 (with special permission from his father to join that young). He got his high school diploma when I was 13, and his first college degree when I was 15 - my favourite photo is of him in his graduation gown holding Our Kid as a toddler in his arms while she's reaching for his mortarboard tassel. He taught his daughters to reach a hell of a lot further than he would ever be able to, and to keep on reaching. He was a life-long Democrat and brought us up on liberal values. And he loved NASCAR – enough that he even raced before he married my mother, a university-educated New England blue-blood, who made him stop. (Of course, that was all back in the days when NASCAR still used real stock cars, drove on dirt tracks, and you didn’t need a multi-million dollar sponsor and a high-tech crew to be a driver.)
Our Kid and I grew up with names like Cale Yarborough, the Allison brothers, A. J. Foyt, Richard Petty (boo-hiss, we didn’t like him, because our dad thought he was too impatient and put his pit crew at risk), Buddy Baker, Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt (yay, we liked him - Senior and Junior - my dad named his dog Dale after them both). We were girls, and our dad – who believed strongly in equal opportunity regardless of sex – encouraged us to support female drivers as well, so we cheered on the ladies like Christine Becker, Robin McCall and my personal all-time favourite hero, Janet Guthrie, who got her pilot’s licence when she was 17, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Michigan, worked as a research and development engineer for NASA, became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500, and finished ninth place in 1978… while driving with a broken wrist. Now there was a role model for any little girl to have looked up to, and at a time when there were precious few role models for us little girls around. Now, thankfully, there are more, and may their numbers – and wins – ever increase.
We went to racetracks as kids, sang the national anthem (enthusiastically, if badly), breathed in dust and gas fumes and the smell of burnt hotdogs, loved the vibrations in the pit of our stomachs from the roar of engines, guiltily hoped to see more spectacular car crashes while never wanting anyone hurt. We wandered through the back lots afterwards and talked to drivers and mechanics, clambered onto battered car hoods to have our photos taken with drivers, or pit crew, or anyone in a coverall with enough racing patches on it to be impressive. It’s an indelible part of my childhood, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
And I wouldn’t vote Republican if you held an NRA-approved gun to my head.
Now, for a few more hard, cold facts about typical NASCAR fans: An ESPN poll taken in 2004 showed that 41 percent of NASCAR fans earned at least $50,000 a year, a figure that exactly mirrored national statistics. In every income category the study cites, NASCAR fans make nearly identical incomes to the rest of America. In other words, they’re exactly like… um, well… us, actually.
For those who object to NASCAR races as wasteful, noisy and polluting, it might come as a surprise that sixty-seven percent of NASCAR fans consider buying a fuel-efficient vehicle to be patriotic, while eighty-five percent of NASCAR fans want the government to raise the average fuel-efficiency in U.S. vehicles to 40 mpg. Short tracks that run under NASCAR sanctions now require emission control devices, many use mufflers to comply with noise ordinances, and are compulsory in some Busch East, AutoZone West, and Whelen Modified races.
So just who are these NASCAR fans?
Well, one of them is Michael Marciuliano, a 50-year-old father with an accounting degree from Wagner College who works as an assistant vice president at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in Jersey City. He has owned a semi-attached home for 24 years, wears suits to work and does not have a tattoo. Another would be Patrick Hickey, a 52-year-old registered nurse, professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, pilot, skydiver, founder of the Summit Scholarship for nursing students, a ‘seven summit’ mountain climber, and a die-hard NASCAR fan who planted a Nextel Cup flag amid the Tibetan prayer flags atop Mount Everest this last May.
NASCAR driver Ryan Newman is a Purdue graduate from South Bend, Indiana. The late Alan Kulwicki, a champion NASCAR driver, was also a college graduate with a degree in engineering. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Winston Cup driver, graduated in 1979 from Alfred State College, with three semesters on the Dean’s List. Billy Kuebler crews pit support for the No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports team and also helps out tire specialist Lisa Smokstad. He's also a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a degree in engineering, and made the chancellor's list four straight semesters. Darian Grubb, crew chief for driver Casey Mears, holds a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech. Sara Fisher, who scored four top-ten finishes in her first NASCAR West Series season in 2005 and placed 12th for the NASCAR Grand National Division, graduated in 1999 from Teays High School seventh in her class with honours and a 4.178 grade point average.
All of them, as far as I know, have all their teeth, don’t spit tobacco, and know how to spell ‘articulate’.
Rather than being the refuge of the ignorant and the wilfully stupid, NASCAR has encouraged many college and university students. ‘It used to be that growing up with your dad in the garage was good enough to get you through,’ said Don Radebaugh, spokesman for the ARCA (American Racing Car Association ) series. ‘But it requires more than turning wrenches in a garage. We’re seeing more and more drivers and crew members who are college graduates.’ College programmes turning out highly skilled crew members ‘gives any racing program a place to look for help,’ according to Bill Kimmel, crew chief for eight-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel. ‘If you take a kid off the street, we have to show them every step of the way.’ The University of Northwestern Ohio runs a high-performance motor-sports programme, with around 1,000 students enrolled in two- and four-year degrees in business and technology. Motorsports students at Indiana University-Purdue in Indianapolis compete for internships with sport racing teams. Other colleges are following suit, including Lincoln Tech in Indianapolis and WyoTeck in Fremont, California.
NASCAR is big, big business. It’s the second most popular professional American sport, ranking behind only the NFL in terms of television ratings. It holds seventeen of the top twenty attended sporting events in the U.S., with over 75 million fans purchasing 3 billion – billion – dollars in product sales annually. Fortune 500 companies sponsor NASCAR more than any other governing body.
God knows there are plenty of excellent and valid reasons to despise the rightwing and the Republican Party. NASCAR isn’t one of them. So a word of advice to the Democrats, and to the left in general – pick your enemies more wisely…
…Or risk becoming one of them.