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THE NASCAR VOTE

10/13/2008
"He was the daring, strapping young racer from California, she, the wealthy but lonely candidate's wife..." Getty Images

The buzz around the Lowe's Motor Speedway was electric. The chatter was constant. The rumors turned out to be true. More details emerging from Thursday's Kevin Harvick-Carl Edwards fight? No. A new development in the Chase for the Cup? Nope.

Cindy McCain was wearing blue jeans.

The wife of the would-be POTUS rolled into the NASCAR garage on Saturday night with a pack of Republican candidates drafting in behind her. There was Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who also happens to be running for Governor of North Carolina, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and a wad of county and state politicians hoping to ride the McCain family coattails into 2009 jobs.

She smiled, gathered up endorsements from the likes of Richard Petty and Cowboy Troy, received a pit tour from Joe Gibbs, and stated the obvious: "North Carolina is extremely important in this race."

She's right. In this wild and wacky election year, the Tar Heel State coming up red on Nov. 4 is not a foregone conclusion. Neither is the NASCAR grandstand, judging by the number of Obama stickers being slapped onto coolers and T-shirts. "Clearly the GOP doesn't feel like race fans are a forgone conclusion," said a worker for Race For Change, a Barack Obama support group that was stationed around the speedway. "Otherwise, why would Cindy McCain even bother to show up?"

"If you want to reach mainstream America, the racetrack is the place to do it," said Jerry Gappens, former Lowe's Motor Speedway V.P. and current president of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "I can't remember a race here in Charlotte or at New Hampshire when we didn't receive a phone call from a political campaign or a government office wanting to come out on race weekend to meet the people."

Decades ago, the likes of Southern politicians from George Wallace to Jimmy Carter hob-nobbed with fans at the track. More recently, everybody running for something seems to stop by. Long before Cindy appeared in her jeans, Dubyah strolled down pit road at the 2004 Daytona 500, Governor Ah-Nuld worked the California Speedway to simultaneously improve his poll numbers and pimp Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Rudy G. drove a tour bus down the frontstretch at Daytona.

The most vaunted voter visit came at Daytona on July 4, 1984, when Ronald Reagan became the first sitting U.S. President to attend a NASCAR race, taking his place alongside NASCAR Chairman Brian France to watch fellow Republicans Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough battle to the finish line. Afterward race winner Petty told reelection hopeful Reagan, "I won my race, now you go win yours."

But the first commander in chief to actually break bread with grease monkeys was the man who lost his job to Reagan. Carter had racers over to the house when he was Georgia's Governor and was the first to invite them to the White House on September 13, 1978. Carter also invited Willie Nelson and let him select the menu of southern baked ham, potato salad, and jalapeno corn bread.

"That was the day that I felt like NASCAR arrived," Bobby Allison said as he made his way over to shake Cindy McCain's hand. "They even let us park our racecars on the South Lawn. Unfortunately, I still don't think it convinced many of the drivers to vote for him the next year."

On Saturday night, as she has done all fall, McCain bragged about her love of racing, especially drifting. (Couldn't you see her running side-by-side with Lucas Black and Bow Wow in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift?) Truthfully, she has every reason to brag, as does anyone who owns a diploma from the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona.

However, even that pales in comparison to current NC Governor Mike Easley and his lifelong insistence on trying to become Stroker Ace. In 2003 the Democrat came to the Lowe's Motor Speedway to show his support for the motorsports industry and its impact on his state by turning a few hot laps in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy…which he proceeded to plow into the turn two wall at 120 mph.

Two years later he jumped into one of Jimmie Johnson's rides to make a ceremonial drive through downtown Raleigh from the Governor's mansion to the NC legislative building. When he attempted to do a burnout he started fishtailing and jumped the curb, barely missing parked cars and a utility pole. Once his Republican rivals couldn't resist the gift-wrapped opportunity, quipping, "If you have any blue paint on your car, you know who did it. Put him on a racetrack and when he's supposed to turn left he turns right."

Despite their long history together, the marriage of politics and NASCAR tends to lean more toward Easley-ish wrecks than Cindy McCain-like meet-and-greets.

Bill Clinton came to the Darlington Raceway in 1992 and was nearly booed out of the old track. In fact, the mudslinging down at the Darlington has become so out of control local officials asked everyone to tone it down. A few years back a S.C. politico used a flyover banner to declare his opponent was "a redneck idiot" and earlier this year ISC, NASCAR's track ownership arm, was criticized for refusing a credential request from Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr.

In 1992 Rusty Wallace was roundly ripped for using his live post-victory interview on ESPN to stump for Bob Dole. Former NASCAR and current Bristol Motor Speedway exec Kevin Triplett, one of the sport's all time good guys, failed in his '04 bid for a Virginian Congressional seat and even Richard Petty, The King, was soundly defeated in the '96 race for N.C. Secretary of State.

"I probably didn't campaign hard enough," admits the longtime county commissioner. "Honestly, I don't think we campaigned much at all. Maybe racing and politics don't mix too well after all."

Perhaps so, but that doesn't mean that Washington wannabes are going to stop trying, blue jeans and all.