When Politics and NASCAR Collide

This weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR fans will be assaulted -- and I mean that in a hearty capitalistic way -- by a dizzying array of corporate media, the kind that bedazzles the cars, the haulers, the drivers, even the race track itself. There's Tony Stewart's nod to Office Depot, Jimmie Johnson's homage to Lowe's, and Kasey Kahne's toast to Budweiser. All of this has not only helped move product, but it's also made the NASCAR business model an incredibly successful one. But what can it do for an incumbent?

We'll soon find out. Governor Rick Perry is sponsoring fellow Texan Bobby Labonte's Chevy at the Samsung Mobile 500 on April 18, and reportedly paid Labonte's team, TRG Motorsports, a whopping $225,000 to carry a "rickperry.org' logo on the car. Labonte's blue fire suit will also give a shout-out to Perry's 2010 re-election campaign, and the car will travel around the state in the days leading up to the race.

History tells us that teaming up with NASCAR is a smart move. In 2003, North Carolina Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole put her campaign logo on a car and her numbers jumped three points after the Elizabeth Dole Chevrolet ran in the Sam's Club 200 Busch Series race.

Here are some more fun facts on NASCAR's pivotal (and sometimes hilarious) role in American politics:

- Richard Nixon was the first president to invite a NASCAR driver (Richard Petty) to the White House in 1971. With Nixon's penchant for profanity, and Petty's reputation as a no-nonsense, straight-shooter...oh, if only those walls could talk.

- While running for governor of Georgia in 1970, Jimmy Carter -- an avid race fan and former ticket vendor at Atlanta International Raceway -- promised the NASCAR community a barbecue at the governor's mansion if he won. He kept that promise, and held another NASCAR cookout in 1978, this time at the White House.

- Ronald Reagan was the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race, the Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984. He gave the "Gentleman, start your engines" command while flying over Daytona International Speedway in Air Force One, commencing the sport's annual Independence Day race. He ate fried chicken with the drivers and pit crews after the race. (Relatedly, NASCAR is set to release a new biopic called "Petty Blue," featuring some scenes of the Gipper with the King, Richard Petty.)

- In 2003, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley drove a Winston Cup race car at a charity event. While behind the wheel of Jimmie Johnson's #48 Chevrolet, he crashed into a retaining wall at 120 miles per hour. He walked away a little embarrassed, perhaps, but otherwise unscathed.

- In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger used NASCAR not only to promote his run for Governor of California, but also his new movie, introducing the "Terminator 3" car at California Speedway.
In 2004, the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign launched a two-day, four-state touring company of NASCAR celebrities to help pull in the so-called "NASCAR dad" vote. Seven drivers and racing personalities, including Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott, Jack Roush, Benny Parsons, Jeff Hammond and Eddie Wood appeared in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania at 14 separate events.

- In a hard-to-picture NASCAR moment, surf-and-ski aficionado John Kerry attended the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway and Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

- A little more believable was Bill Clinton's appearance at the NASCAR Darlington Raceway Winston Cup race in 1992, while campaigning for president.

President Obama has yet to attend a race, but he hosted NASCAR's top 10 on the White House lawn in August of 2009. He was later interviewed on ESPN's "NASCAR Now," offering up the following assessment of Jimmie Johnson: "He looks like a pretty young guy. I saw him getting in and out of the 48 and I was thinking I would have strained something, broke something. He didn't even tear his suit. That's the least that would have happened to me - I would've had a big rip somewhere."

S.E. Cupp is a conservative commentor and frequent contributor to the Fox Forum.

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