In January 2011, Jason Bowles crossed the finish line as champion of the Toyota All-Star Showdown, a race that features some of the best drivers in NASCAR’s minor leagues. When he takes to the track on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, part of a weekend of racing events that will reportedly feature an appearance by Republican front runner Mitt Romney, it will be in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA baseball. Amid the cars sporting colorful logos for Pop-Tarts, GameStop and Monster Energy drinks, Bowles’ No. 81 race car will feature three signs: “American Majority Racing” on the hood, “PledgeToVote.com” on the sides and in front of the spoiler, “Keep America Free.”
American Majority, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that trains conservative grassroots activists and political candidates, is sponsoring a race car owned by MacDonald Mostorsports for all 33 races during the upcoming NASCAR season. This isn’t the first time that organizations other than corporations have sponsored race teams–the U.S. Army and the National Guard have each sponsored cars. Nor is the collision of NASCAR and politics something new. In 2010, Texas governor Rick Perry sponsored a team at Texas Motor Speedway as part of his reelection campaign. But for the first time in the sport’s history, a national political organization is sponsoring a car for the entire season. That seven-figure investment, funded by ongoing fundraising by American Majority, is part of a campaign to engage NASCAR fans, increase voter registration and turn out more conservatives on Election Day.
(PHOTOS: Portraits of the Tea Party Movement)
“The fact that a conservative non-profit would do this for an entire season is unprecedented,” says Ned Ryun, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and the son of former Republican Congressman Jim Ryun who founded American Majority. “We want to be a portal into politics for NASCAR Nation. One of the things that excites me is being able to challenge people and say listen, if you are concerned about too much government, too much spending, not enough individual freedom, there’s something you can do about it, and that’s vote. I think that’s a message that will resonate.”
It’s a message that will reach a large number of people. According to statistics released by NASCAR, the average attendance at Nationwide races last season was 60,000 people, and more than 120,000 for the Sprint Cup Series races, NASCAR’s premiere events. Even in 2011, as the economic downturn continued to take a toll on attendance, racetracks that can hold approximately 135,000 fans often saw 80,000 on race day. That’s about the size of a crowd for an NFL game. In 2011, an average of more than 8 million viewers tuned in to 13 Sprint Cup telecasts on Fox; add in internet followers and some estimates of the sport’s overall appeal put NASCAR Nation at about 75 million fans. The American Majority team will compete in all 33 races and the organization plans to have outreach teams at 14 races to engage fans with their small-government message.
(PHOTOS: NASCAR’s Nation of Fans)
But in targeting a fan base that already tends to lean conservative, American Majority’s agenda isn’t just ideology. It’s excitement: The group aims to register voters in an effort to increase voter turnout. With the exception of the South Carolina Republican primary, which saw a 35 percent increase in voter turnout over 2008, early contests this year saw about the same number of voters as the last election; in Florida, which Romney won by 14 points, turnout was down by 14 percent. The NASCAR campaign will likely appeal to voters in the South, which is a Republican stronghold. “In the South last [election cycle], more than half of the adults turned out and voted,” says Merle Black, a professor of Political Science at Emory University and an expert on southern politics.
American Majority’s NASCAR campaign also comes at a tough economic time when its message could really connect. Randy MacDonald, a former NASCAR driver from Ontario who owns MacDonald Motorsports, says many fans have had to cut back the number of races they attend because of their own financial situations. Ryun sees those frustrated fans as ideal voters. “I think they’re understanding that where they are at right now is not where they want to be,” Ryun says. “We’re trying to communicate to them that if you don’t like where you are now these are a couple of steps you can take to get us back on that path to freedom and prosperity. We’re challenging them, saying if you want to see difference, here’s how you do it. It’s very simple. If you’re not registered, get registered and vote.”
(PHOTOS: A Half-Century of the Daytona 500)
“The most effective messages are the ones that resonate with reality,” Black says. “If that’s the reality for some of these attendees of the NASCAR races, if it’s become so expensive or their income situation has deteriorated, then that would be a way of directly appealing not only to their pocketbook interest, but also their entertainment interest.”
Ryun has staked a lot of money on the idea that entertainment interests can increase voter rolls and that NASCAR Nation will turn out in large numbers on Election Day. And if Bowles can repeat his All Star Showdown performance this season, it can only help.
MORE: What is a Conservative?