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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Because Richard Petty is a Republican, that's why

Over at Postman on Politics, David Postman suggests that opposition to NASCAR is a class issue. And he definitely seems to have a bee in his bonnet over something Frank Chopp said:
NASCAR greats Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip are in Olympia today and tomorrow pushing for state help in building a new track in Kitsap County.

House Speaker Frank Chopp is unimpressed. When Chopp was asked about Petty's presence today, he told reporters:

"I was going to make a bad joke about, 'Who's he.' But then I decided, You mean the guy who got picked up for DUI, that guy?"

He added a few seconds later:

"By the way, on that last point? I was told that, so I'm not sure. You better check to make sure it's accurate. But he's not a member of the House last time I checked."
Then we find out this morning that Chopp was most likely remembering a reckless driving charge rather than a DUI involving Petty. From the News-Tribune via The Olympian:
Petty was charged with reckless driving and hit and run in 1996. Petty was accused of bumping another car from behind on an interstate highway, then passing it and driving away. He paid a $65 fine.
Postman says he searched hard for anything involving Petty and a DUI and came up empty. Fair enough, maybe Postman didn't think to search for other traffic offenses. It happens. Postman is still one of our favorite reporters.

However, if we are going to talk about Richard Petty in a political context, let's briefly examine his history. Petty was a Republican candidate for state-wide office in North Carolina, his home state.
In 1995, Petty successfully underwent surgery for prostate cancer. A year later, the Republican Party, seeking to capitalize on "The King's" popularity, made him its candidate for North Carolina's Secretary of State. He lost. During the campaign, Democrats made much of the fact that Petty used NASCAR tactics on I-85 when, boxed in by a slow commuter, Petty tapped him from the rear.
So Petty isn't just a rank and file Republican, he ran for state-wide office. Which is his right as an American, but clearly he is more than a race car driver.

As I stated in comments at Postman's, the opposition to NASCAR is not class-based in any traditional economic sense. If you're truly poor you probably can't afford to shell out hundreds of dollars to attend races and buy merchandise. It's a very middle class sport in many ways.

But NASCAR is a Southern sport, and I think it owes a lot of its success to what Kevin Phillips calls the "southernization" of America in his book "American Theocracy. You don't need a masters in political science to understand the political message being delivered by 100,000 drunk white people waving Confederate battle flags.

NASCAR, on a cultural level, represents the Lost Cause of the Civil War. NASCAR has been eagerly adopted not only as a spectator sport but as a political and cultural statement by many of its fans.

So once again we witness how conservative framing allows the perpetuation of an absurd notion: the conservative claim to victimhood. It's essentially the same song that white segregationists sang. (And if someone wants to pop a vein over that statement, I'm not suggesting that all NASCAR fans are racists, but there is a common theme in the history of the American South that runs in a direct line from the Civil War to today's conservative movement, from the real victims of carpetbaggers to the phony victims of today's evangelical right-wing Christian supremacy movement.)

It's not elitist to be unenthused about either Richard Petty or the prospect of using taxpayer money to fund a NASCAR track. Chopp did get the facts wrong about Petty's highway misbehavior, so he should say "sorry" about that. But it is clear even from Postman's quotes that Chopp was trying to figure out what actually happened and wasn't sure he had the story correct.

Postman is concerned about some of the comments made by legislators that play into the stereotypes about NASCAR fans, which are basically the stereoptypes about white male southerners. Now, of course all racing fans are not white, male southerners, but that is the public image they have. And if Frank Chopp is being an elitist, what are we to make of Larry the Cable Guy, who currently has this little gem up on his web site?
It's a good thing Al Gore released that movie when it was hot because it's hard to convince people about global warming when there's icicles on orange trees. I don't know about the CO2 level but the (baloney) level is higher than a pair of nuts on a Giraffe! It was so cold this morning I had to light a match BEFORE I took a poop!
And they brag about this sort of belief system, it's a point of honor with them. In essence, they are so threatened by the world around them that the only thing they can do, in many instances, is attack us. Willful ignorance as entertainment may sell well but it's still willful ignorance.

Race car drivers tend to be overwhelmingly Republican. It's something NASCAR drivers and their fans embrace.

From a 2004 Washington Times article entitled "Racing pros revved up for GOP:"
Here's a challenge: Try finding a Democrat in the NASCAR garage.

Richard Petty looked around and smiled.

"You'd be hard-pressed," said Petty, the winningest driver in Nextel Cup history and — oh, yeah — a hard-core Republican.
And a little further down:
"He's just a great American," said Terry Labonte, a Bush supporter and fellow Texan. "In times like this, I'm glad we've got someone like him in office."
And Labonte passes on the right:
Labonte put it more bluntly.

"I guess most of 'em just have a lot of common sense," he said, referring to his fellow drivers and Republicans. "I like to say we're true Americans. We don't fall for as much ... as those guys on the other side of the aisle."
So who is doing the stereotyping to whom? In one simple statement that driver just declared me to be not a true American. Maybe he's just a dumb race car driver, but if NASCAR wants public money then they are now going to have to deal with all Washingtonians, especially the ones who hold large majorities in the Legislature.

Again, Postman is one of our favorite reporters. But I disagree with his take on how a lot of Democratic elected officials are reacting to an idea that seems wholly out of time and place. We're not the ones who politicized NASCAR; it was the GOP and many involved in NASCAR who did that. Basically NASCAR can get in line behind real roads, schools, health care and everything else.

UPDATE--3:25 PM Frank Chopp has issued a statement apologizing to Richard Petty, according to the House press shop:
"This morning I personally apologized to Richard Petty for a comment I made yesterday. It was inappropriate and wrong.

"I appreciate his willingness to meet with me."
Postman has more today, including Petty's fairly diplomatic response to a question from Postman about Chopp's comment.

So, whew and hey, how about that Ichiro?

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