NASCAR vote threatens Barack Obama’s poll position

by Amy Kingsley

If Sen. Barack Obama really had been serious about capturing Winston-Salem’s white working-class vote, he would have followed state Rep. Laura Wiley’s example.

Wiley, a Republican from Guilford County, sponsored a car in the Farm Bureau Insurance Modified Division. Hers was the only campaign represented at Bowman Gray Memorial Stadium on the first weekend in May, when the stands were packed with nearly 17,000 white, working-class spectators.

In the pit, drivers inspected their cars in preparation for the season opener, the Tucson 200, a 50-mile trip around Winston-Salem’s famed quarter mile. They went over the chassis and large soft wheels that make a modified – a shorter, wider car than stock racers. The race, the longest of the series, exposed Wiley’s name to this captive race-fan demographic for a full, dizzying 45 minutes.

Just four years ago, political analysts coined the phrase “NASCAR Dad” to describe the white, middle- and working-class men who played a crucial role in President Bush’s reelection. This year analysts dropped the NASCAR tag. But they were still preoccupied with the fans at Bowman Gray, particularly those inclined to vote in North Carolina’s Democratic primary, one of the last big contests between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

According to the exit polls from last month’s primary in Pennsylvania, white working-class voters prefer Clinton. Fifty-eight percent of voters without college degrees chose her in the primary, according to a CNN poll.

Those figures don’t reflect the opinion of Allan Paschal, a trucker and Teamster who likes Obama’s positions on issues related to organized labor.

Although rising gas prices, particularly diesel prices that have topped out at more than $4 a gallon, have pinched him, Paschal said he does not support a gas tax holiday.

“What’s fifteen cents a gallon?” he asked. “You’re just taking that out of the revenue. You can’t tax the corporations; they just pass it on to the consumer. It’s like fool’s gold: You’re going to pay it anyway.”

Obama had been shoring up his credibility with voters like Paschal during his last week of campaigning in North Carolina. At appearances in Winston-Salem and Hickory on April 29, white, blue-collar supporters introduced him to rapturous, mostly black crowds.

“Let me tell you about myself,” Obama said at a rally in Winston-Salem. “My grandparents were born in a small Kansas town. My grandfather fought in World War Two and was able to go to college on the GI Bill. My mother was also able to go to college. When she was struggling to raise me and go to school at the same time, sometimes we got food stamps.”

Clinton won the last contest in Pennsylvania because of her popularity among working-class voters. Despite Obama’s emphasis on his humble roots, some of his supporters have questioned his ability to attract white voters with less than a college education. That concern surfaced during the question-and-answer portion of his Winston-Salem appearance.

“Sometimes the reporting gets skewed on this,” Obama said. “We actually have won the white, working-class vote in a lot of states. We lost it in the last two states, Pennsylvania and Ohio. But in those states Clinton has been known for a very long time. Voters feel very loyal to her.”

Obama led pre-primary polls in North Carolina by as much as 9 percent, but there were still loyal Clinton voters in the Tar Heel State. Clinton touted her proposal to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer at appearances held the weekend before the election. The issue has widened into a rift between the candidates, with Obama dismissing the gas tax holiday as a short-term fix and promoting his own set of tax cuts for the middle- and working-classes.

At the track, Debbie Webster, a registered nurse, paused for the pre-race prayer and then resumed her explanation of why she was backing Clinton.

“I think she’s more concerned about health care,” Webster said. “I think our health care system does need to be reformed. I see what people with insurance have to pay and what people without insurance are paying, and I think our country could do better.”

Webster said she doesn’t know if she will support Obama in the general election if he wins the primary.

“I’m really undecided about what to do about that,” she said.

And while most of the crowd had already picked their favorite in the evening’s competition, not all of them had chosen a candidate in the Democratic contest ending a few days hence.

One unaffiliated voter who has been coming to Bowman Gray races for 50 years eased up to the concrete wall encircling the bleachers. He said he worries about the economy and the price of gas.

“I’m retired,” he said, “so I live on a fixed income. I haven’t had to cut back too much yet, but if this keeps going, the pot’s going to run dry.”

He hadn’t decided which Democrat would get his vote on Tuesday, but he said he would be voting for that party in May and November.

“I tell ya, in the last eight years, things have gotten really bad,” he said. “I think we need a Democrat in there.”

Meanwhile, on the grounds below, a field of 20 cars revved their engines, emitting a gray fog of exhaust and launching an ear-ringing mechanical symphony. Twenty-four modified cars rumbled to their places.

Driver Tim Brown earned the pole after setting a track record in the qualifiers. The crowd favorite shared the front row with Burt Myers, who elicited jeers from bleachers.

Myers drove the No. 1 car, Wiley’s car, which wore its political decal on the roof above a riot of business sponsorships.

“Gentlemen,” the announcer roared, “start your engines!”

Myers pulled into the lead spot and held it for the full 200 laps. Roger Ender watched the race from the concourse.

“I’m a Republican,” he said, “so I can’t get too excited about the Democratic primary.”

He said a friend of his, a lobbyist in Washington, worked on Sen. John McCain’s last presidential campaign.

“My only concern about John McCain is his age,” Ender said. “I think he’s a good man and honest for a politician.”

Ender, who works for NAPA Auto Parts, said the struggling economy has taken a toll on car dealerships. A lot of them won’t take sport utility vehicles anymore, and when they do, they pay much less than the Kelly Blue Book value.

“I don’t understand what’s happening to food prices,” he said. “I heard someone the other day telling me that a gallon of milk cost six dollars. I don’t understand what’s happening and I don’t think Congress understands.”

Among those who don’t understand, according to Ender, are the two remaining Democratic candidates for president.

“I don’t know if people really respect Hillary,” Ender said. “When all that stuff happened with Bill, I think women looked up at her and either respected what she did or really disrespected her. Some of them probably wondered why she didn’t stand up for herself.

“Now Obama, I don’t really know much about him,” he added. “I was impressed that he finally disassociated himself from Rev. Wright.”

Ender turned back toward the track and watched Myers make his victory lap. Then the No. 1 car – Wiley’s car – made for the pit, another group of racers took their place on the track and the crowd settled in for a long night of racing.

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