A Right Turn for NASCAR

Racing fans considered swing voting block

By Kenneth P. Vogel
|  Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009  |  Updated 10:15 PM PDT
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President Obama meet with NASCAR drivers.

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President Obama on Wednesday afternoon welcomed 17 current and former NASCAR drivers to the White House to honor the sport’s 2008 champion Jimmie Johnson, but if their campaign contributions are any indication, they might have preferred to have been greeted by a Republican president.

The invited drivers have given a total of $113,625 in federal campaign contributions since the early 1980s, all of which went to Republican candidates and party committees, a POLITICO analysis of federal campaign finance records found.

The campaign of Obama’s 2008 Republican opponent Sen. John McCain received $1,000 each from retired NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. Johnson, who won the 2008 Sprint Cup championship by accumulating the most points from race victories last year, Waltrip and four-time points champion Jeff Gordon each wrote $2,300 checks to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s rival campaign for the GOP nomination.

NASCAR, which stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, was once considered a rural, Southern and largely Republican pastime. But it has seen its popularity explode in recent years, and political analysts have identified the sport’s fast-growing fan base as a potential swing voting block in federal elections, particularly at the presidential level.

Giuliani and McCain each made campaign pit stops at NASCAR races, while Obama passed up the opportunity to do so and also dropped plans to sponsor a car in a NASCAR race in the critical state of Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, Obama defeated McCain in Pennsylvania, as well as in traditionally Republican Virginia and North Carolina, which are considered NASCAR hotbeds.

In his remarks to the drivers gathered in the White House’s South Portico Wednesday, Obama praised NASCAR as “a uniquely American sport" and touted its evolution from a niche endeavor dominated by "moonshiners" to an international enterprise with prominent community service programs.

Yet POLITICO’s analysis found a strong regional and conservative flavor to the contributions from invited drivers, at least 11 of whom wrote checks to federal committees.

Republicans from North Carolina, where NASCAR has offices and many of its racing teams are located, were particular favorites, with former Sens. Elizabeth Dole receiving $6,000, Jesse Helms getting $3,450 and Lauch Faircloth pulling in $2,000. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Bob Corker, both of Tennessee, received $9,300 and $4,100, respectively.

Former NASCAR executive Kevin Triplett received $15,500 from the drivers for his failed 2004 challenge to Democrat Rep. Rick Boucher for a Southwestern Virginia congressional seat, while the GOP’s three national party committees received nearly $34,000 combined, and former President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign got $4,000.

Here are the total federal contributions given by the NASCAR stars invited to the White House Wednesday:

Darrell Waltrip: $60,625

Richard Petty: $23,450

Dale Jarrett: $6,200

Kurt Busch: $5,000 *

Jeff Gordon: $4,300

Tony Stewart: $4,000

Greg Biffle: $3,500

Jeff Burton: $3,000

Jimmie Johnson: $2,300

Kurt Busch: $1,000

Bobby Labonte and Bobby Labonte: $250 *

* Contributions made by racing companies associated with drivers to party committees before the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act banned corporate contributions to parties.

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