Days of Thunder

The Right Stuff

Yesterday afternoon, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Graham has previously indicated that he hopes to obtain the support of so-called “NASCAR Democrats.” Broadly speaking, NASCAR Democrats are rural, conservative voters—presumably fans of stock car racing—who normally back the GOP. Therefore, Graham will likely try to broaden his base with appeals to rural interests and elements of Republican social policy. Two of his campaign strategists, Dave Saunders and Steve Jarding, used similar tactics in helping Democrat Mark Warner win the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2001.

Pundits have estimated that NASCAR Democrats could play a decisive role in several of 2004’s most critical Democratic primaries, including the one in Virginia. The assistance of Saunders and Jarding may indeed swing these voters into Graham’s camp. However, the Florida senator should be careful not to neglect what is arguably the most crucial factor in gaining the NASCAR vote: being tough on national security issues.

The NASCAR universe is unabashedly patriotic. What’s more, the typical driver or fan is today a Bush Republican. Some drivers have made openly political statements in recent weeks, affirming their support for Bush’s prosecution of the war on terror. Michael Waltrip, for example, caused quite a stir with his post-race comments at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in early March. After finishing third in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, Waltrip told the TV cameras “I would like to say, ‘God bless our president. I hope the whole country is behind him and supporting him ... praying for him. And [that] we’re united as a country and stand behind the president. I’ve been wanting to say that for a week now.” These sentiments appear to be pervasive throughout the NASCAR community. Its fans are, by and large, the last people you’d ever expect to find at an anti-war rally.

But contrary to what some may think, NASCAR patriotism is not just mindless bravado. Nor is it simply my-country-right-or-wrong jingoism. To be sure, there exists a much more profound connection between NASCAR and the American military. Indeed, it’s a relationship that is unparalleled in the world of sports.

For starters, NASCAR chairman Bill France was once in the Navy, and his brother Jim, also involved with NASCAR, served in the Army. There is a fly-over by military aircraft prior to almost every race. In addition, the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, National Guard and Civil Air Patrol all sponsor racecars. To list just a few: the Army sponsors Jerry Nadeau’s car; the Navy sponsors Jon Wood’s; the Marine Corps sponsors Bobby Hamilton, Jr.’s; the Air Force is an associate sponsor of Ricky Rudd’s; and the National Guard sponsors Todd Bodine’s.

In the past few months, several drivers have made public appearances for their benefactors at military installations around the world. Over the New Year, Nadeau spent a week in Afghanistan and Kuwait, hanging out with the troops and even driving a tank. Shortly thereafter, a number of drivers accompanied team owner Richard Childress on a five-day tour of U.S. bases in Spain, Germany, Sicily and Bosnia. In March, Rudd visited Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base and, according to the Charleston Post and Courier, “got about as close as a civilian can get to an F/A-22 fighter jet.” Around the same time, Bodine went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with amputee soldiers who’d been hurt by landmines in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Followers of stock car racing largely understand their sport’s unique attachment to U.S. forces overseas. Such feelings were movingly articulated by NASCAR president Mike Helton at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “We believe there is a special bond between our troops and our sport,” he said. “Each branch of the American military is represented in NASCAR racing, and our chairman, Bill France, has always described NASCAR fans as ‘the kind of people who go to war and win wars for America.’ Many of those fans are currently deployed throughout the world, doing just that.”

Ultimately, then, Democratic presidential candidates who want to grab a share of the NASCAR vote in next year’s primaries must prove that they are sound on matters of national defense. In fairness, Sen. Graham seems to realize this—kind of. During Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, he explained that he had voted against October’s Iraq war resolution in Congress because he “thought it was too weak.” Graham also implied that President Bush had mostly abandoned the fight against terrorism.

Whether or not his strategy of positioning himself to the president’s right on the terrorism issue works well in NASCAR constituencies remains to be seen. While his anti-Bush statements certainly won’t be appreciated, Graham is at least on the right track. NASCAR drivers and fans are generally a hawkish bunch, with a deep-rooted appreciation for those who risk their lives defending American liberties and American values. If members of the Democratic presidential field hope to have any chance of winning the support of NASCAR Democrats, they must first accept this reality.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. He is a columnist.