NASCAR stumble raises caution flag for Democrats

RALEIGH, N.C. -- It got the GOP's engines revving -- a Democratic official suggesting staff members get immunized for several diseases before heading south from Washington into the Red State wilds of NASCAR country to conduct research at a pair of races.

The reaction on both sides illustrates how candidates for elected office value the votes of thousands of NASCAR Nextel Cup fans who pack grandstands and the donations of business leaders who spend millions sponsoring the top level of stock car racing.

It started last month, when an official with the House Committee on Homeland Security suggested that staff aides get immunizations before visiting health facilities at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway and North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway, where the Bank of America 500 was run Saturday night.

In an e-mail, a staff member who works for committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., noted an "unusual need for whomever attending to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B," as well as "the more normal things -- tetanus, diphtheria, and of course, seasonal influenza."

The note didn't explain why the committee saw such concern. It didn't mention NASCAR or the races at the tracks. But the implication was enough to draw a snarky complaint from Republican Rep. Robin Hayes, whose district includes Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"I have never heard of immunizations for domestic travel, and ... I feel compelled to ask why the heck the committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown," wrote Hayes.

Thompson responded to Hayes that such immunizations are "are recommended for public safety professionals working in areas such as hospitals, holding areas and similar locations." But the workers were only scheduled to visit a few health care facilities -- not work at them.

"The very idea of immunization is laughable," said speedway president Humpy Wheeler. "It's like taping your ankles to go to the mailbox."

He noted that no NASCAR event has sparked an outbreak -- "other than a few headaches because somebody's favorite driver ran out of gas or maybe a morning hangover."

There are lots of voters at the track, and that makes politicians of both parties NASCAR regulars. The crowds undoubt-edly trend Republican, but that hasn't stopped Democrats from seeking support at the races.

In the days leading to the Bank of America 500, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, held a reception near the track's Turn 4.

Among those welcoming the gubernatorial candidate were Wheeler, NASCAR president Mike Helton, as well as team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates -- both registered Republicans.

Democratic Gov. Mike Easley is one of the sport's biggest fans, having gone as far as wiping out behind the wheel of a stock car. The Democrat-led state Legislature has paid special attention to NASCAR, granting tax breaks to the many teams based in the Charlotte area.

"Democrats in North Carolina know that their success is built on not conceding business interests to Republicans," said Ferrel Guillory, who heads the program on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. NASCAR "is big business. This is big economic development."