Daytona Beach

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.

Some say the race for the NASCAR Dad vote is overblown. “I think it’s something Karl Rove conjured up,” says Florida Democratic Representative Alcee Hastings with a laugh. “One in five fans are now a minority. Almost half are women. They’re no different than anyone else.” Once a Southern regional sport defined as stretching from Darlington to Daytona, from Atlanta to Austin, NASCAR has burgeoned into a national craze, attracting 75 million fans coast to coast. An average Fox racing broadcast draws twice the audience of a network-carried NBA game.

As a result, NASCAR is on a mainstreaming fast track. The privately held company (whose new CEO boasts “I’m a registered Democrat”) has jettisoned its longtime sponsorship by R.J. Reynolds in favor of Nextel–a cell phone in your pocket now a more attractive status symbol than a pack of Winstons. Vociferous Democrats Ben Affleck and Whoopi Goldberg were shipped into Daytona to serve as Grand Marshal and Honorary Starter, and no one seemed to mind. NASCAR is also sponsoring its own diversity program, quickly trying to bring some African-Americans into what is still an all-white crew of top-rated drivers. After all, in a sport that has become such an all-out corporate marketing bonanza, why exclude any potential commercial constituency?

After the seventh lap (out of a total 200), when the Viagra-sponsored car was the first to peter out, I took a pedestrian cruise through the jumble of officially sanctioned booths and stands around the track perimeter. The GOP voter reg booth was hardly swamped, but it was doing better business than the US Army recruitment tent across the way–nowadays it being safer to be one of Bush’s voters rather than one of his soldiers.

But it was the NASCAR Official Merchandise tent that really packed them in. “Sure I applauded Bush. He’s our President,” said Mike Vanisch, a 41-year-old unionized electrician from Fort Lauderdale who was pondering a $110 satin red Budweiser jacket. “But I’m not voting for him. Too many people I know have seen their jobs go to Mexico in the last couple of years.”

It’s doubtful this was the prevailing sentiment at the track. Bush did pick up nearly 70 percent of the Southern white male vote in 2000. But precisely because of vanishing manufacturing jobs and a war that seems to be draining the national treasury, Democrats think they can bite into the NASCAR vote this fall.

Both John Kerry and John Edwards have loudly proclaimed themselves NASCAR fans. They surely have read how, during his 2001 gubernatorial race, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner helped sponsor a NASCAR team and then took his seat with a 100,000-vote margin. Retiring Florida Senator Bob Graham sponsored a mean-looking Ford pickup emblazoned with “Bob Graham for President” before he dropped out of the White House race late last year.

NASCAR driver Brian Weber of Charlotte, North Carolina, spent time at the beginning of the year campaigning with Howard Dean and was hoping to race his Number 84 Chevrolet in the Daytona 500 as the official Team Dean entry. But just as he was getting ready to paint his car, the wheels came off the mother campaign and Weber couldn’t raise enough money to go ahead. Weber was last rumored to be mulling over a Kerry Kar.