KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham (search) hopes his sponsorship of a NASCAR Craftsman Truck (search) will help him connect with rural and small-town voters. His first challenge may be the driver of that NASCAR truck.
Jon Wood, the 21-year-old who steered the "Bob Graham for President Ford F-150" to a career-first win at Kansas Speedway this past weekend, isn't certain about his political affiliation, nor does he really care.
"I don't know anything about politics -- nothing," said Wood of Stuart, Va.
When Wood got a voter registration card, he asked his father, Winston Cup (search) team owner Eddie Wood, for guidance. "He said 'I'm a Democrat,' so I said, 'I guess I'll have to be a Republican,"' Wood said. "I still don't know what I am."
The task for Graham, who got a late start in the Democratic primary race, is winning over the estimated 75 million NASCAR fans, primarily in the South and Midwest, who follow racing by Wood and hundreds of other drivers.
One target are the "NASCAR Dads," white, working-class men inclined to support Republicans but capable of backing a Democrat if they agree on the issues. The group emerged as a key constituency during the 2000 presidential campaign.
"The strategy is that NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in America, that it has a very loyal fan base and that loyalty has a lot of transfer to businesses and other groups that sponsor NASCAR vehicles," Graham, a Florida senator, said during a recent telephone interview.
But if NASCAR dads are loyal to racing, they may not be committed to political parties or voting. Larry Sabato (search), director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the fans, while not necessarily Republican, are certainly not Democrat.
"Most of them are going to be no-shows," he argued.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said Graham will see more of a benefit from the publicity surrounding his deal than from fans who watched the race live or on television.
The deal between Graham and Roush Racing, terms of which were not released, ends with Saturday's race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. John Miller, director of business development for Roush Racing -- Wood's team, said Graham and his campaign "realized that NASCAR was a terrific venue to reach voters."