EDITOR'S NOTE: In this piece originally published on TomDispatch, former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte explains how Nascar dads (and moms) signaled a distant early warning on Iraq and helped turn the tide of the election.
1. It's the Car, Stupid
"I hate that term, NASCAR Dads, it's narrow and patronizing, but it's about time Democrats showed some sensitivity to the stock car culture."
-- David (Mudcat) Saunders, political consultant.
The Democrats won the Senate and the House because the Republicans lost the garage.
Four years ago, mad political scientists created Nascar Dad to combat Soccer Mom. The result was as epic as Beowulf versus Grendel's Mother. We know how both those battles came out. And now we also know that Nascar Dad, like the great Scandinavian mercenary, began to wonder if he was protecting the right mead hall.
Like Beowulf, Nascar Dad may be a fiction. Nascar itself denies having any stereotypical fan, while encouraging the idea that it is a political player. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, described Nascar Dads as "middle-to-lower-middle-class males who are family men, live in rural areas, used to vote heavily Democratic but now usually vote Republican." Most political experts more or less agree with that description, although political consultant Mudcat Saunders adds that Nascar Dads are often suburbanites who are "rural-thinking" about religion, patriotism, hunting, and fishing.
One of the sharpest thinkers in Nascar Nation, H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, president of the leading North Carolina track, told me back in 2003, "They liked the President's Top Gun performance, but they're not so gung ho anymore on Iraq because this is the crowd that joined the National Guard."
That turned out to be a distant early warning.
Nascar Dad still voted for Bush and Republicans in 2004. Among other reasons, as many Nascar Dads told me then, they thought that Bush was more "manly" than Kerry, whom they despised as the patronizing snot who had been putting them down since grade school.
Republican attitudes toward evangelical Christianity, unashamed commercialism, guns, the environment (racing cars still use leaded gasoline), and diversity (the Nascar garage is overwhelmingly male and white) seemed a perfect fit with Nascar values. Nascar supported Bush financially and courted his attention through its ruling family, the Frances. They have owned and operated the sport since 1947 when promoter Big Bill France whipped a brawl of hot-headed former moonshiners into a confederacy called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. His son, Bill, Jr., and now his grandson Brian, extended his vision brilliantly, signing record TV deals. They did it with racers that sort of looked like everyday street cars, but weren't, and they held onto their southern hardcore while reaching out to markets in California and the Midwest.
I remember thinking--in the years I actively covered Nascar--that one of the most telling differences between my subjects and me was that they knew more people on active military duty than people in same-sex relationships.
That was still true this month, and that's why the Democrats won.
2. Dale Died for Our Sins
"You might be a redneck if you think the last four words of the national anthem are 'Gentlemen, start your engines.'" --Jeff Foxworthy
On the final turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the first and most celebrated race of the Nascar season, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. slammed into the wall near where I was sitting. I can still hear the frantic voice of Earnhardt's crew chief calling to him through my radio scanner: "You okay, Dale? Talk to us, talk to us."
Minutes later, a blue tarp was thrown over that famous black #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet. It was my first race and I didn't understand the full meaning of the blue tarp until I heard the air whoosh out of 200,000 chests and people around me in the press box begin to cry.
The clash of reactions to Earnhardt's death--Oh, God vs. So What? -- was a signifier of America's cultural divide. There were millions of Americans who barely knew what Nascar was, who thought of it as numbing Sunday afternoons of gas guzzlers mindlessly snarling around a track while rednecks got hammered. But there were also millions of Americans who built their family vacations around those races and their buying patterns around the products advertised on their favorite cars. Nascar claims some 75 million fans and, by some measures of regular season TV viewership, it is second only to pro football as a national sports pastime.
Beyond the three top levels of Nascar--Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck--lies a competitive racing culture that starts with an estimated 4,000 American youngsters between 5 and 13 driving quarter-midgets, little fiberglass cars with 2.5 to 4 horsepower engines that can reach speeds of almost 40 miles per hour. They graduate into dozens of classes of cars at hundreds of race tracks, predominately in the South and Midwest, driven by men, women, and children in front of grandstands packed with Nascar families.
For them, Earnhardt, known as "The Intimidator," was one of the last of the laconic, hard-charging carburetor cowboys with whom Southern workingmen could identify. They flew Confederate flags with his face superimposed. They wore hats and shirts with his number 3 and grew imitations of his push-broom moustache. And they plastered their pick-ups and rec vehicles with pictures of his main rival, California-born Jeff Gordon. There would be a red slash through Gordon's pretty face and the words Fans Against Gordon (F.A.G.). It was the worst they could throw at Gordon, a hearty hetero who drove as hard as Earnhardt (who liked and mentored the younger man).
At 49, Dale was the cocky, daring, triumphant yet accessible hero of a wounded land, a tough guy who might tolerate the Northern corporate suits who dogged him like little boys, yet never lost touch with his rural roots. He hunted and worked his farm and tough-loved Dale, Jr. into a superstar, too.
I didn't get it while he was still alive. I spent some time with him the month before he died. He was gruffly charming and I found what I considered his contradictions amusing. Here was a populist hero whose North Carolina office-race shop complex, the so-called Garage Mahal, contained a curated display of his hunting rifles, mounted animal heads, and pictures of his executive chef cooking up his kills. I was simply too new to the sport, maybe too New York, to appreciate his mythic place.
Thousands jammed his memorial services, lined up to leave notes and flowers on the fence near where he died, wore black, and painted a 3 on their cars and pick-ups. Think Princess Di.
His death was at least as poignant; he was in third place, blocking the field for the front-runners, his son, Dale, Jr. and his protégé, Michael Waltrip, a 37-year-old journeyman who went on to win his first Cup race.
My story of Earnhardt's death appeared the next day on page one of the New York Times, but his name was not in the headline. The editors decided that not enough Times readers knew who he was. They were probably right, yet another indication of the red-blue divide. The headline read: "Stock Car Star Killed on Last Lap of Daytona 500."
In her best-seller, Slander, Ann Coulter, in an attempt to portray how out of touch and elitist the Times was, claimed that it took the paper two days to get around to covering Earnhardt's death and, when it did, the lede read "His death brought a silence to the Wal-Mart," which she interpreted as a disdainful swipe. (That was actually in a reaction piece several days later by Southerner Rick Bragg.)
In an attempt to show how out of touch and misleading Coulter was, Al Franken reprinted that front page in his best-seller Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them.
The beatification of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. as a man's man who sacrificed himself to shepherd his flock to the finish line, a hero who in death evoked both John Wayne and Jesus, presented America with its biggest joint jolt of sports and evangelical Christianity since Billy Sunday left the Philadelphia Phillies outfield more than a century ago to become a superstar preacher. But as William J. Baker, author of the forthcoming book, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, told me, it shouldn't have been a surprise.
"In many ways, evangelical Christianity and big-time sport are similar," said Professor Baker, who was a preacher and a quarterback in his time. "Both are win-loss mentalities. In evangelical Christianity you are either saved or lost. You've gone to heaven or you've gone to hell, you win or you lose and that's what this sport is all about."