Meet America's answer to Mondeo Man

He shouts, he swears and he's never happier than when he's chugging a beer at the local race-track. He's also the man the Democrats are counting on to swing the vote their way in November. Andrew Buncombe meets Nascar Man
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The Independent US

As the cars come off Turn Four, there is barely a moment to prepare oneself for their arrival. The engines scream as the vehicles approach 190mph. There is a smell of burning rubber, a shuddering blast of wind, a faceful of dust, should you dare to get too close to the safety fence. And then, the cars are past you and gone, screaming like banshees towards the next deeply inclined bend.

The crowd roars. "Man, I love this shit," shouts a young man, a can of beer clenched in his fist and a baseball cap on his head. "I love this shit."

There is nothing subtle about the people who go to Nascar, the so-called "redneck" stock-car racing craze that is sweeping across America. These fans tend to be straight-forward, blunt-speaking types who talk of the exhilarating, visceral thrill of the speed and noise of fast cars. More often than not they wear their passion embroidered on their sleeves, not to mention their chests and hats.

The Nascar phenomenon has soared in recent years, creating a multibillion-dollar industry that has lured advertisers in their droves, and made household heroes out of drivers such as the late Dale Earnhardt and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr, who pilot these vehicles around tracks at jaw-dropping speeds.

Yet, it is not just the advertisers and merchandisers who are after the fans of Nascar. For the politicians in Washington, and their teams of advisers, there is no more attractive potential voter than those to be found at a Nascar track, a beer in their hand, a yell on their lips.

To be precise, it is one particular type of fan that politicians are after - the so-called Nascar Dads. And, to be even more accurate, it is not all politicians who are swooning before these fast car-loving fathers, but rather those Democratic strategists who see them as the key to securing enough votes this November to oust George Bush from the White House.

There is nothing new about this profiling of the electorate. Strategists frequently identify potential swing-voters, people who might be won over if a candidate, or a party's message, was articulated in the correct way. In Britain, in 1997, Tony Blair was told that Labour's fortunes relied on his appeal to Mondeo Man - upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial, disliker of taxes - and Worcester Woman - a middle-class, former Tory voter, who lived in the regions. In the General Election of 2001, the Tory pollsters targeted the "Pebbledashes" - married couples, aged between 35 and 50, who were white-collar workers or professionals living in suburban, semi-detached houses - with 1930s-style pebbledashing.

Such fanciful nonsense and invention has been just as prevalent in the US. When President Bill Clinton was seeking re-election, back in 1996, the Democrats hustled for the votes of the Soccer Moms - suburban, married women with children, who lived busy lives but did not have paid jobs.

This time around, the pollsters have come up with something new - Nascar Dads. This tag can mean many things, but at its heart it supposedly denotes a blue-collar, working, usually rural man, probably from the South. Nascar Dad is a family man, who worries about making a living, about settling his taxes, about paying for healthcare for his children, and about the drift of manufacturing jobs overseas.

Nascar Dad may have voted for the Democrats at state level elections, but he can generally be relied upon to put a tick next to the Republican box when it comes to choosing the country's president.

"Our message to them is: Democrats are not going to take away your guns, but Republicans are going to take away your jobs," says Celinda Lake, the Washington-based Democratic pollster and adviser who coined the term Nascar Dads in 2002.

"That is the voter we should be targeting. It doesn't have to be a majority of these guys. If we can cut 10 per cent of the Republican margin then we are going to win."

Nascar is an acronym for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. It was founded in 1948 by Bill France Sr and, though the sport has transformed over the years - from being a testosterone-rich, male preserve into a family sport - the multi-billion-dollar industry is still owned by the France family.

In the early days, ordinary saloon cars were raced along a stretch of sand at Daytona Beach in Florida. The guidebooks will tell you that this 20-mile stretch of light-coloured beach became associated with motor sports during the 1900s when some of the pioneers of the automobile industry, such as Louis Chevrolet, Henry Ford and Ransom Olds, raced their early cars along the sands. Thirty or so years later, Malcolm Campbell, of the Bluebird fame, broke the land speed record five times here, hitting a top speed of 276mph in 1935.

Since its post-war years on the beach, Nascar has grown extraordinarily. The high-banked, 2.3 mile track that is Daytona International Speedway was opened in 1959, with a capacity of 150,000. During the biggest races of the year, the stadium is usually full. But it has only been in the past 10 years that Nascar has seen its popularity soar to an unprecedented degree.

Originally a preserve of the South and the South-west, Nascar now holds around 90 races a year, in 25 different states, with drivers competing in three separate circuits. The Nascar organisation likes to claim that 75 million people - one in four of the US population - now consider themselves fans.

If the South is the notional home of Nascar Dad, and Daytona his preferred place of pilgrimage, it is the month of February that draws most devotees. February is the month of the Nascar Nextel Cup - formerly the Winston Cup - the biggest race of the year and the culmination of a week or so of speed trials and qualifiers. The 46th annual race takes place this coming Sunday night.

Hundreds of thousands of people are drawn to Daytona for the race, filling the motels that double or treble their prices for the week, eating out of the fast-food joints and burger bars that set up around the stadium and emptying the shelves of the merchandisers who sell so much garishly coloured "race wear" that, at times, it can be hard to tell who are the drivers and who are the fans. This year - in very clear indication of the power of the Nascar Dad - President George Bush has let it be known that he will be among the guests.

As the cars circuit the 2.3 miles in around 50 seconds, Mark Hancock watches the spectacle, transfixed by what he sees before him.

While he has no children, the 34-year-old aviation mechanic considers himself a hardcore fan. "I live near by, I come here a lot," he says as the cars come out of the turn, the very spot where Earnhardt died, in 2001, when the seven-times Winston Cup champion clipped another driver's car and crashed into the wall at around 180mph.

Hancock is a friendly type, happy to explain the finer points of the sport to a novice. That's part of what Nascar is all about, he says, a friendly atmosphere. He met his wife, Violet, in Poland. She is not a great fan. But she's happy enough to come along. The couple don't have any children, but if they did she'd be equally happy to bring them as well.

Standing next to one of the stadium's steel uprights is the real thing - a Nascar Dad. Tim Gosselin, 32, who works for a distribution firm in nearby Orlando, is continuing a family tradition and has brought his three-year-old son Dylan with him.

"I was brought here by my dad when I was a kid," he says, as his son jumps up and down in a puddle of water. "I have always been an Earnhardt fan, but there are all types. There are people here from all over. There was someone out in the parking lot from Pennsylvania."

There is little doubt that - at least in the eyes of Washington-types - Nascar has something of an image problem with its redneck associations, not least the pickup trucks that many of the heavily-tattooed fans appear to drive, and the Confederate flags stickers that appear on their bumpers.

George Pyne, Nascar's chief operating officer, admitted recently: "The term [Nascar Dads] acknowledges that our fan base constitutes a large and growing segment of the electorate well worth wooing. But the term has also been used to convey a narrow stereotype - 'middle to lower-middle class people, living in rural areas'. Nascar embraces these fans, but Nascar's fan base is much broader and more diverse than many political scientists may think."

The fans themselves appear somewhat divided by the label with which they get stuck. They readily admit that some fans match the stereotype of the beer-swilling redneck, but they say there is a vast range of people who come to watch.

Steven Maslow, a plumber from St Petersburg, Florida, jokes that Nascar ought really to stand for Non-Active Sports fans, Confederates And Rednecks. Maslow doesn't seem like much of a redneck, and he says there are all types here, including "yuppies paying $500 for the hospitality suites", but he insists it is the preserve of the blue-collar worker. He and his sister Michelle got up at 4am to drive to Daytona and then spend the day with their friends.

"I'm totally into it," says Michelle, a Nascar Mom, who seems a far cry from being a "typical" redneck. "I have got four children at home. They are too young to bring, but they know all about Nascar."

The thinking behind Lake's political tag is undoubtedly correct. No American president has made it to the White House without winning some of the country's Southern states, and one of the themes of the ongoing Democratic primary season has been the need for the party to appeal to white, rural voters.

As former front-runner Howard Dean controversially said last November: "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."

But political pundits question just how useful tags such as Nascar Dad really are. Stephen Hess, a former presidential speechwriter, and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says: "Most people - 60 or 70 per cent - vote the way their parents voted. Voting may not be part of the genetic code, but factors such as upbringing, socio-economic class and whatever are very important."

However, he says that the idea of discovering a group of potential swing-voters was hugely attractive to pollsters. With the country so evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, a party only need to win over a very small number to be successful. "We are talking about a fraction of voters."

But can the Democrats deliver to the fans of Nascar, people for whom there is no greater thrill than hearing those magic words that start a race, "Ladies and Gentleman, start your engines"? Republicans insist that Nascar Dad - many of whom rarely bother to vote in national elections - will remain loyal to their party. Others see yet another scenario in which neither party benefits from their support.

"They don't really see anyone standing up for their issues," says Merle Black, a political scientist from Atlanta's Emory University.

"Forty years ago their hero really was [the segregationist Alabama Governor] George Wallace. Republicans, Democrats, there isn't a dime's worth of difference. They might lose some votes for Bush, but it doesn't necessarily mean those people will move over and vote for John Kerry," Mr Black added.