WASHINGTON – Going to NASCAR? Are your inoculation records up to date? Have you had all your shots?
Most fans would probably think that a homeland security emergency at a NASCAR race would take the form of a terror attack. But after hearing all the noise in Washington the last couple of days, they'd be wrong.
The argument began when congressional aides were advised to get real-life immunizations against several communicable diseases — including hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus and influenza — before traveling to look at preparations being made by local first responders for hypothetical scenarios at the tracks in Talladega, Ala., and Concord, N.C.
The head of the House Homeland Security Committee called it standard procedure, but the congressman representing Concord called that bunk.
Gentlemen, start your engines . . .
"I am beginning to get offended," said Republican Rep. Robin Hayes. "We thought it was silly that you needed to get a vaccination to come to Concord to go to the NASCAR races. This is the greatest sport on Earth today and you sure don't need a shot to come down here."
Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said he never meant to offend or scare anyone about health risks at the races. The measure was advised to provide congressional staff with the same disease protection first responders get, especially as they head out on a series of fact-finding missions around the country.
"It's not about whether the people have shots. ... Our staffs as they go forward will be going into sterile areas, they will be working in public health facilities, they will be talking to many holding facilities where criminals are being held....
"The NASCAR event is just one date, but after that they will be doing a number of things," said Thompson, adding that the World Series and Super Bowl are two other mass gatherings that are going to be researched for readiness.
During the trip to North Carolina, staffers were to visit a medical facility with patients at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. They were also set to inspect an empty mobile hospital. After the House physician told Republican staffers that shots were not necessary to go to North Carolina, they didn't get them. Democratic staffers reportedly did.
Hayes said the vaccination orders left a biased impression that somehow NASCAR fans or Southerners are more likely to spread disease.
"Bennie is a good friend. All Bennie has to do is say we weren't talking about the fans, so it is much about nothing. But when you won't back off, where do you from there? NASCAR is a great sport, [it] supports the military and it's an international sport now....
"Bennie is from Mississippi, he should know better. The bureaucrats in Washington have him on the hook and he won't get off," Hayes said.
According to the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR is the top spectator sport in the U.S., and the No. 2 rated regular-season sports broadcast on television. NASCAR airs in over 150 countries, and its 75 million fans purchase more than $2 billion in licensed products each year. NASCAR sanctions 1,500 races per year at 100 tracks in 35 states in the U.S. as well as in Canada and Mexico.
Saturday's race in Concord was expected to draw as many as 165,000 fans to watch race leaders Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and at least 18 other drivers chase for the championship.
Lowe's Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said Friday that the suggestion about immunizations was laughable.
"This is not some third- or fourth-world country. As a matter of fact, never in the 50-plus years of NASCAR has there been an outbreak of any kind at an event other than a few headaches because somebody's favorite driver ran out of gas or maybe a morning hangover," Wheeler said.
Thompson said NASCAR officials have been very cooperative in trying to set up the congressional staff visits and are working closely to make sure health and safety issues are addressed.
"If something bad happens at an event like that it's bad for the industry, so it's in their best interest to work cooperatively with us, and I'm happy to report that our first tour in Talladega did just that. Everyone was satisfied (that) those systems were not only redundant in terms of being able to communicate and coordinate with each other ... the training that's involved was really really first class," he said.
Hayes said with the track just two miles from his house, he has already met people visiting his hometown from Canada, Connecticut and West Virginia. Most of them, he said, also shrugged at news about the advisory to congressional staff.
"I talked to a veteran and he asked me, 'What is the government going to do next?' So people are looking at this like its some kind of a joke," he said.
After all the attention drawn to the subject of staff shots, Thompson took one of his own — accusing Hayes of playing politically nasty games by building up the confusion for his own gain.
"The only regret is that we have a politician who happens to be a member of Congress, who probably got his first opportunity on national TV on an issue that should not have been," Thompson said, adding that charges of Southern bias don't sit with him since he's originally from a town of 500 people.
"It's just absolutely political. ... All Congressman Hayes and anyone else had to do was call us and we'd be happy to explain it," Thompson added.
Hayes denied that his concern was based on a publicity stunt.
"I don't need any fame at my age," said Hayes, 62. "All I am saying is once this got going, all Bennie had to say on behalf of his staff is, 'You do not need immunizations to come to Concord, North Carolina, to the NASCAR race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.' It's that simple. He is the one keeping it alive, not me."
FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.