As George W. Bush popped into the International Speedway during the granddaddy NASCAR Daytona 500 on February 15 he was careful to not screw up the way Bill Clinton did back in 1992. During his first presidential campaign Clinton was met with a wall of hoots and boos when he tried to make a political speech at a Darlington Raceway NASCAR run.
Bush wisely opted instead for the more visceral politics of cultural imagery. First he buzzed the gathered 180,000 stock-car-racing fans with Air Force One and two streaking F-15s. “The President is cool,” said 38-year-old Gainesville carpenter Jim Reiter, who was sitting next to me as he watched the impromptu air show and sipped a brewski. Reiter apparently picked that phrase up from top NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has repeatedly and publicly made the same observation of Dubya.
A few minutes later, Bush tickled the crowd by running a lap around the legendary 2.5-mile track in his blacked-out motorcade fleet of spiffy SUVs. After a rousing live rendition of “God Bless the USA” from country singer Lee Greenwood, the crowd was stoked again by yet another overflight–this time from a wedge-shaped B-2 bomber flanked by fighter escorts.
Then Bush materialized simultaneously on the speedway stage and on an array of super-sized TV monitors and, dressed in a dark NASCAR windbreaker, carefully limited his words. “Laura and I are honored to be here,” he said. “We ask God’s blessing.” And then after a dramatic pause, he commanded, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
That elicited a thunderous, bone-rattling roar from nearly four dozen 700-horsepower V-8s, which in a cloud of Sunoco fumes brought the entire crowd to its feet, cheering, stomping and waving thousands of Budweiser cans high into the air.
Whether this hops-driven homage was to the President in front of us or to the awesome machinery below us, it mattered not. Mission accomplished either way. The whole idea of this thinly disguised campaign stop was to burnish the Everyman cultural pose that Bush has so successfully honed, and this was a ripe audience.
It was, after all, the biggest known gathering in one place of what some say is this election cycle’s hot new key constituency: NASCAR Dads. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who coined the term in 2002, defines the group as “blue-collar fathers between 35 and 55…culturally conservative but very populist.” In other words, what in the 1980s we used to call Reagan Democrats and back in the political Pleistocene era Joe Six-Packs.
Anywhere else in the world these folks would simply be called the working class and their political loyalty would overwhelmingly be with our version of a labor party. But this is America, and things get a lot more complicated. NASCAR marks the treacherous intersection where culture and class crash head-on. There’s no doubt that thousands of those sitting around me spend plenty of nights at the kitchen table worrying over healthcare and jobs. But today they’re loudly applauding driver Bobby Labonte as he rolls out his grumbling green Interstate Batteries Chevrolet, its specially painted hood promoting Mel Gibson’s just-released The Passion of the Christ.