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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
Washington diary: On Nascar dad's trail
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

I have a confession to make. Until last weekend I was a Nascar virgin.

Nascar Sylvania 300 racing on 16 September
Stock car racing has a huge fan base in the US

I had talked glibly about Nascar dads, that tribe from the 2000 and 2004 election who replaced the soccer mum as the key electoral weathervane, the obsession of pollsters, punters and campaign staffers.

But I had never actually seen a race staged by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

In the last presidential election, both candidates vied for the macho gold cup.

John Kerry was filmed hunting duck in fatigues. The Democrats attacked the president for whimping out of the Vietnam War.

The Bush campaign vilified the opponent as an effete Botox Boston Brahmin, who was virtually French with a wife who was virtually nutty, and Arnie Schwarzenegger famously railed against "girlie men" at the Republican convention in New York.

Everyone then was vying for the elusive vote of the Nascar dad, comfortable with America at war, bent on payback for 9/11 and robust on homeland security.

So does this tribe still exist? And if so could they decide this election?

Easy riders

Last Sunday, I tried to find out by heading up to New Hampshire for the Sylvania 300 race in Loudon.

Dale Earnhardt Junior with his new Nascar car on 19 September
Dale Earnhardt Junior: The man Nascar fans really want to see

To get there, we flew by chopper from the tiny airport of Concord, where the terminal building is a hut with a mural painted by children.

Nancy swipes your credit card, does the check-in and offers you candy.

Normally, Concord airport caters for flying lessons, but during the annual Nascar race, it becomes a parking lot for private jets. "Oh!" said Nancy laconically. "They belong to the racing drivers."

To arrive at the race track by helicopter is to appreciate the weirdness of the location.

The track nestles in the dense New Hampshire forest like a stranded space ship. The arena seats no fewer than 100,000. And the fields around it play host to what looks at first like a giant refugee camp.

This is in fact a caravanserai of camper vans (RVs), mobile homes and pick-up trucks, tens of thousands of them.

You can smell the barbecue even from the air. What greets you on the ground is a combination of Top Gear, Easy Rider and the Crusades.

There are about 80 million Nascar fans in the US; the vast majority of them presumably vote Republican

Almost every RV has an array of flags planted in it that range from the obligatory Stars and Stripes, to the Confederate Flag, to the owner's state flag and the coat of arms of their favourite drivers, which in this case are numbers.

The ones you see most often are the famous eight and three. The latter belonged to Dale Earnhardt Senior who was known as the Intimidator for the way he bumped up against rival cars at 190mph (305km/h).

He died in 2001 during the last of 300 laps at the Daytona 500 race.

Now his son Dale Junior (number eight) is one of the stars of the Nascar circuit, and yet more proof that this country likes the father-and-son double act, in races on the track as much as in races for the Oval Office.

The crowd is immense, but cheerful. The men wear their hair either very short or very long.

The women look remarkably like the men and no-one can resist acting up to the camera.

No natural heir

When the race starts, all conversations are forced into a staccato rhythm of 20 seconds of chat followed by 30 seconds of deafening roar.

The track is only one-mile long and 43 cars race around it 300 times at speeds of 200mph (320km/h).

Rudy Giuliani greets the crowd at the Sylvania Nascar 300 on 16 September
Mr Giuliani makes a bid for the Nascar crowd's attention

Amidst all this we found the reason for our presence: the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, currently seeking the nomination of the Republican Party.

Rudy had come up all the way from New York with a posse of staffers to appear on television next to the Nascar drivers for the opening race of the season and to shake a few machine-oil-stained hands.

There are millions Nascar fans in the US; the vast majority of whom presumably vote Republican. Millions will have watched Giuliani on TV and a good proportion of them will actually vote one day.

A good place to spend a Sunday then, for a candidate.

"These are MY people," the former mayor said as he caressed the horizon of bobbing faces with his hand.

"Never mind this race, are you going to win the race for the White House?" I asked the man, who much of America still remembers charging through the noxious dust of 9/11.

"Of course," he declared with cast-iron confidence and left it at that.

The shifting allegiances of America's electoral tribes are fickle beyond the point of prediction

But like other instinctive Republicans, Nascar dads and moms are confused these days. There is no natural heir to the GOP ticket.

Rudy may be leading the pack at the moment, but the reaction of Gene and Grover, who were busy grilling ribs outside their RV, should be sobering.

"He cheated on his wife," said Gene. "That makes him unfit to be president."

Grover agreed, perhaps a touch too quickly.

Fluid field

In fact between them, Rudy Giuliani and another Republican front-runner, Senator John McCain, have clocked up five marriages. The only front-runner who has been happily married to one woman is the Mormon Mitt Romney, who many Americans still wrongly assume can be married to several wives at once.

Eventual Sylvania race winner Clint Boyer's crew work on his car during a pit stop
Racer Clint Boyer makes a key pit stop before his eventual victory
Polygamy was of course abandoned by the Mormon Church more than a century ago.

What was really telling about the response to Giuliani at the Nascar race was the apparent lack of interest. The candidate had to vie for attention with the cars and lost.

The great American public has not yet got engaged in the election. And who can blame them? It is well over a year away.

In that time, the fluid field of candidates and the shifting allegiances of America's electoral tribes are fickle beyond the point of prediction.

In 2008, Nascar dad is scratching his head, taking his time and not giving much away.

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