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February 21, 2007

Has NASCAR become a class issue?

Posted by David Postman at 5:15 PM

NASCAR greats Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip are in Olympia today and tomorrow pushing for state help in building a new track in Kitsap County.

House Speaker Frank Chopp is unimpressed. When Chopp was asked about Petty's presence today, he told reporters:

"I was going to make a bad joke about, 'Who's he.' But then I decided, You mean the guy who got picked up for DUI, that guy?"

He added a few seconds later:

"By the way, on that last point? I was told that, so I'm not sure. You better check to make sure it's accurate. But he's not a member of the House last time I checked."

I find no record of Petty being "picked up" for driving drunk, or anything else related to a DUI. I searched everywhere I could. Chopp said he heard it from someone else, and maybe they know something that I don't. A Chopp staffer said they didn't have any more information. The only reference to alcohol I can find is a bit of NASCAR lore that Petty won't allow alcohol advertising on his cars because of a promise he made his mother. He's reportedly passed up racing awards named after beer companies to keep that promise. Oh yes, he's also involved in a campaign to combat drunken driving.

Grant Lynch, vice president of International Speedway Corporation, told me he had never heard anything about Petty and a DUI.

"I know Richard has been a great ambassador for our sport for many, many years and he's a solid citizen in South Carolina and he has received numerous awards from across the country. He's a class guy in a class family."

The Petty family has started a camp for disabled children in memory of one of Richard's grandsons.

Chopp's comments were clearly an attempt to discredit Petty, and the NASCAR lobbying effort. This is not about me being a Petty fan. I'd think the same if someone in Chopp's position had said the same thing about a professional baseball, football or basketball player.

But it wasn't any of those. In fact I never heard anything like that when the Mariners, Seahawks and Sonics were looking for public money for their facilities. Instead the critics talked of "millionaire players and billionaire owners." Some make similar charges against NASCAR. But others talk about the fans and now the character of its stars; it has become something of a class issue. (To be clear: There are many people, citizens in Kitsap County included, who oppose the NASCAR track for traffic reasons, public financing issues and many other very legitimate concerns. But it is the tone of comments by lawmakers that I'm writing about here.)

Chopp has said repeatedly that no House Democrats have pushed him to support the NASCAR track. He says he doesn't hear from anyone about it. At a press availability earlier this month, when asked about NASCAR — as the Longview Daily News reported

he pulled out a Wall Street Journal article sent to him by a legislator describing the rowdy crowds at the Talledega Speedway in Alabama.

The article reported that "hard-drinking" fans "whoop it up for days."

"This is an example of the kind of contact I've had from (House members) about NASCAR," he said.

In the Times today, freshman Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, was quoted calling the corporation pushing for the track a "terrible corporate citizen." But the words he used to elaborate didn't sound like he was talking about a corporation:

"These people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you," Seaquist said. "They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law."

To give a lot of credit to Seaquist, he called reporter Ralph Thomas today to say he misspoke, but was not misquoted. "It wasn't my finest moment," he said, and only meant to criticize the way the corporation has handled its lobbying efforts.

Lynch said he has noticed a tinge of what I'd call elitism in some of the opposition to the track.

"I think when you're building a stadium of this magnitude anywhere you're going to have people in the local community who are against it.

"But I have felt that for some folks, and I'm not saying it's everybody, there is a little bit of thinking that this is an old southern sport where they ride around in gas-burning cars and it doesn't fit in the Northwest. And I really would beg to differ."

Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, the sponsor of the Senate NASCAR bill, said he's seen the same thing:

"I've heard a lot of that. Apparently, we have a new class of people that we can discriminate against."

NASCAR fans elsewhere are paying attention. A man from Atlanta e-mailed Thomas today and said:

The libs are afraid it might bring in too many conservative, beer drinking, Bush loving, true Americans who care about this country and all it stands for. Hope they build it!

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