How to run good

Democrats' mad pursuit of NASCAR dads in 2004 was a flameout. But with Bush fading, they have a chance to win the restless heart of America's stock-car-racing fans.

Published February 19, 2006 11:33AM (EST)

America rises in its grandstand seats this weekend to spill a little beer, to throw back its grand old sunburned head and let loose a holler, to shake and bathe in the noise and heat and death-defying mother funk of the Great Sensational; in short, to greet another major date on the calendar of our seasonal sporting obsessions, the Daytona 500.

That coast-to-coast rumble you'll hear come Sunday is NASCAR's Great American Race, and for those of us who ache in the pristine quiet, the immaculate vistas and stately foreign emptiness of the Winter Olympic Games, the 500 will dose us with a native remedy of speed, sex, suds and family values. A deafening riot, in other words, of perfect American excess.

And one small group among us in particular would do well to find a television that afternoon and pay close attention -- to indeed study --this orgy of motorized Americana as it thunders north out of Florida. I refer to the folks in charge of the Democratic Party, whoever and wherever they may actually be. NASCAR has a lot to teach them about the people they aspire to govern, about their wants and needs and dreams. And this go-round, party tacticians need to look up from their spreadsheets and take these lessons to heart.

Because the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, a pop cultural force unmatched for its growth and throw weight over the last five years, has perfected the synthesis of American commerce as politics as theater. With its potent blend of patriotism, mythology, showmanship, sportsmanship and salesmanship, NASCAR has become both a window and a mirror to the state of the nation. That it has done so in the same historical moment as an ascendant and rebranded Republican conservatism is no accident. They seem made for, if not by, one another. But that doesn't mean their ideological bond is necessarily exclusive or everlasting.

Having lived a year inside those ovals and hustled track to track in a motor home, I presume to know the fans a bit, and the drivers and the crewmen, too. I saw them week in and week out -- saw their little evils and mighty loves, their stunning industry and hardscrabble generosity, saw and felt the rude genius and the affable darkness in them. Talked to them, ate their food, drank their homemade, shared their secrets and heard their ambitions spoken in the firelight.

I once asked Richard Petty, NASCAR's eternal king, about politics, and whether there were any Democrats handy. He assured me it was unlikely, looked around the garage and shook his head and chuckled.

All due respect to royalty, I'm not so sure he's still right. With the president's approval rating circling the drain, and a weird sense of imminence in the Washington air, there's an entire constituency in play here. The national approval numbers for this administration have gone soft on hard issues like war, truth, competence and corruption -- from the statehouse to the White House -- and once-comfortable Republicans find themselves vulnerable not just at midterm, but long-term as well. Conservatism is on the bubble and if stock-car racing teaches nothing else, it is that opportunity must be acted upon, the moment and the opening seized.

On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats have been estranged from NASCAR and its 75 million fans since 2004, when each became a punch line for the other. Their falling out over the course of that dismal presidential campaign can be neatly summarized by conflating several quotes from that awkward time: "Who among us doesn't love NASCAR dad and his colorful Confederate flag?" If that didn't drive NASCAR from Democrats, the photos of wind-surfing candidate Kerry, snug in his neoprene, slammed the last door on the spat.

Democrats have lost the knack for reading, and therefore wooing, America. That's the problem, of course. The pits and the infield and the campgrounds and grandstands at any track on any NASCAR weekend are now, for better and worse, greater America itself, bearing all its excesses and grudges and crackpot savvy, its suburban prejudices and intellectual limitations, its wanton appetites and its silent devotions.

No longer a regional pastime for rednecks and reprobates, nor a plausible excuse for egghead condescension, the infield at Talladega, Ala., on race day -- or Fontana, Calif., or Loudon, N.H. -- is a patchwork good-times constituency of our loudest, proudest, smartest, stupidest, drunkest, soberest and mostly whitest middlebrow middle class. When Whitman wrote "I Hear America Singing," these are the folks to whom he was listening. It is a tune for which the Democrats have lately suffered a tin ear.

NASCAR, like country music, has now crossed over into the mainstream, at least in part by shucking its hayseed image and pruning its Southern roots, and by mouthing the rhetorical platitudes of diversity, egalitarianism and inclusion. It invites and draws a much bigger, broader new fan base into its tent. This is the apposite moment for the Democratic leadership to loosen their ties, kick off their shoes and join in the raucous fun. They need to strap their slate of candidates and platform planks into an F-250 long-bed and set out to find the millions of undecideds among stock-car racing's fans.

Trouble is, in the past the Dems have considered NASCAR fans only as a demographic theoretical, a slender wedge on a pie chart. But the only way to really win them over is to rub up against them, to camp in the infield, join the tribe and undergo its rites of passage -- the mortification of the flesh by noise, heat, speed, sensation, karaoke, beer bong and funnel cake. Once Democrats unstuff their shirts, they will be welcomed.

Plenty of our neighbors are looking out there for the same things we all seek in our own ways -- peace and prosperity certainly, even if only in our own families. A sense of community and shared sacrifice, but also the absolute right to be left the hell alone. A sense of moral purpose to the whole shebang, too, even if we butt heads on how best to go about it.

It was the freedom of work and an honest wage that came up again and again on the circuit. There was the night in Grit, Va., at the sod farmer's house. His grown son was a racer, and we were talking about the sacrifice an old man made to get started in such an expensive sport, bleeding out the family savings chasing long-shot dreams on his child's behalf. The lines deepened at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.

"I never much minded it. Work is all we've ever known."

It struck me then, as it does to this day, that the world this man walks in is a simple one. Not easy, mind you, but simple. If you want more, work more. Push against a thing to move it, because this world is a hard and concrete place where the calculus of a man's fate lies at times in his own two hands and where action trumps abstraction.

Democratic leaders, mired in their tactical and rhetorical abstractions, have somehow lost their sense that the world, as it is, remains a place of action and reaction. This is the common-sense world about which NASCAR -- and its sod farmers and mechanics and housewives and teachers and nurses, the people who actually inhabit it and make it work -- can school the Democratic leadership.

And if you think this is pandering or parody, think again. Those 200,000 Americans who will meet beneath Daytona's mothering sun, swelling into those grandstands, all sweat and flesh and readiness, would never gather to hear Joe Biden read a position paper.

Americans respect informed decision, certainly, but they prize decisive action, and NASCAR, and our current administration, are these days its two most efficient bulk providers. That the action is right or just, thought out or worried over, is far less meaningful than the fact that it was gamely undertaken. Bombing the enemy or running the high line at Darlington, chasing terrorists or Chevrolets, the purity and desirability of action is as true in politics as it is on the track.

In NASCAR this means doing what needs doing in any given moment to win a race, or to gain a single rung in the standings at day's end. It might mean easing your fender up on another car and bumping it out of the way. It might mean flat footin' it into a turn too fast because it's your last chance for a break-even payday. Rubbin' and bangin' -- that's racin'. Everyone out there has decisions to make, and you or you do not do what needs doing.

And in these snapshot instants, come and gone before they're even really seen, are found the component parts of race day heroism -- bravery, skill, guile, grit, mud, steel, sacrifice and accomplishment. And such things as these make your reputation. Whether you're a driver or a politician.

By NASCAR's lights, and by America's, too, it is always better to strive and fail than risk nothing. Better a balls-out chowderhead with a wrecked 33rd place car than a harmless stroker who nursed himself home in one clean piece to a gutless top 10 finish. If you want more, risk more, work more. Let the chips then fall across the world.

It is by this sort of physically courageous pragmatism that NASCAR, both the sanctioning body and the people it serves, defines itself. This is the message the Democrats must take to heart. They must note that when action isn't possible, they need to make the mythology of action the message. Wrap the thing, the idea, the man himself in the Stars and Stripes and stand him in front of the car, the carrier, the Alamo. New Orleans doesn't look so bad post-Katrina if you light the debris in azure blue. Such is the transformative magic of marketing.

In NASCAR, the drivers with their names on the marquee -- Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman -- are all painted as either white hats or black hats, faces or heels. Warriors and gladiators and outlaws and buccaneers. They're sold to us in commercials and on billboards and on boxes of breakfast cereal. Who plays which role may vary, even from race to race, but our bone-deep need for the roles themselves never changes. And NASCAR's understanding that we are starved for mythology in this country, hungry for story and for some sort of ancient greatness and the way and means of fable, is complete. There is no sport, no organization of any kind in the country, better tuned to the sizzling wavelength of our narrative needs.

What NASCAR understands, and what is understood by Limbaugh and O'Reilly and their wing men on the right, is that American mythology admits no ambivalence. Whether on the flight deck or on the floor of the House, the administration recognizes far more clearly than its opposition our collective appetite for these simple classics and costume dramas.

Which is one more reason why the Democrats need to relearn the stuff of American political theater, and choose their leading players more carefully. The rebuttal to the State of the Union address just past, given by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, was another impoverished performance. Kaine seems a sufficiently pleasant man, and as former lieutenant to Mark Warner (a man NASCAR-savvy enough to have sponsored a race car in his last campaign, and now himself a fair-haired hopeful with big ambitions for the national stage) should have learned a few things. Sadly for the Democrats, the contents of the rebuttal itself were lost in the very moment of their delivery, because Kaine appeared on television looking like nothing so much as the evening manager at an Ethan Allen showroom closeout. This is the party of a thousand Hollywood directors, designers and stars?

I'm not saying the man needs to be strapped into a bronze breastplate, or hoist onto a horse, but if this is how the Democrats insist on selling themselves; if this is their idea of mythos -- the midweek night shift of peeved middle management -- they'll deserve every shrug and "so what" the buying public gives them.

At the end of the day, there's a fear on the part of 21st century Democrats. They have been made afraid, and they believe that to stand up for oneself is the act of a bully. And that bullies can never be loved. So they retreat instead into the even more unlovable role of the scold.

Since the core values of NASCAR are essentially those of the Republican Party, I suggest again that every Democrat everywhere watch the Daytona 500 when it rolls around, because this year marks the fifth anniversary of the death of its most representative star. He embodied in his way the very things the Democratic Party needs to become -- courageous, tough, decisive, bold. He was a bully, of course, and an artist too, a two-fisted mystic on the track, his toughness somehow grown up out of that red-dirt creativity. In his martyrdom he has become the greatest champion American auto racing has ever known. There has been no harder, more concrete man in any sport anywhere than Dale Earnhardt. He would do, and did, anything to win.

On the morning of the race, Democrats, curious about the spending habits of the American heart, will see an outpouring of pure devotion for the mythic "Intimidator"  a man with a ninth-grade education whose original nickname was "Ironhead."

And to see nearly a quarter-million fans rise silent in their seats to honor him, a man they did not necessarily love or even often like, will be an object lesson to John Kerry or Evan Bayh or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the absolute necessity of taking action; of fighting on your own behalf to win the simple respect, if not the eternal admiration, of your core constituency. No matter the risk, you either do, or do not do, what needs doing.

Let the day and the race be an occasion for optimism among Democrats. After all, these cars and these drivers and these American stories, so prized by the right, spend the better part of their entire season, year in and year out, as they have for generations, turning only left.

By Jeff MacGregor

Jeff MacGregor is a special contributor to Sports Illustrated. His book, "Sunday Money," about a year on the NASCAR circuit, will appear in paperback in May.

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