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February 22, 2007

NASCAR drivers make case for state raceway

Posted by David Postman at 1:22 PM

NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip and current powerhouse driver, and Washington state native, Greg Biffle made the rounds in Olympia today trying to help the International Speedway Corporation lobbying for a racetrack financing plan.

They made their way around the Legislative Building and lawmakers' offices with a throng of press, security, PR people and NASCAR fans. They visited supporters, opponents and the undecideds. At the Ways and Means Committee office, they sang "Happy Birthday" to Chairwoman Margarita Prentice.

"I told them, 'Boy, you guys were well briefed,'" said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, a NASCAR fan who had photos autographed for his sons.

The drivers said Prentice opposes the Kitsap site for the track, but said if Lewis County or another site was used she may be able to support it.

"She may disagree with us, but at least she knows we're charming," joked Waltrip.

That really was the point of the visit. These guys were here for a charm offensive. They weren't expected to do any heavy lobbying, but just to be Petty, Waltrip and Biffle.

Waltrip, now a racing analyst for Fox Sports among his other NASCAR activities, said told reporters that the track was a no-risk deal for taxpayers.

"This is a great opportunity to not just build a track and maybe we'll come, this is to build a track and we'll definitely come. And that's like money in the bank, folks. Trust me. I've been involved in a lot of racetracks, a lot of deals. If y'all are not going to build a track I think I'll just build it myself. I think me and Greg and Richard will go in together and we'll build it and well have the race out here for you."

That's precisely what some lawmakers have suggested. NASCAR, they say, should build the track without a public subsidy as it was able to do elsewhere. I asked Waltrip why they don't do it with their own money.

"You know what, it's math. My two and your two makes five. ... With your help and with our help, everybody works together, this is a win-win. And it is a win-win in a much faster pace and a win-win with everyone involved."

Waltrip and Biffle could have blended into the Capitol surroundings. But not Petty, with his giant black cowboy hat, wrap-around shades and a hubcap-sized belt buckle.

That's how he met the press in the morning. I asked what he thought about being called by the House Speaker, "the guy who got picked up for DUI," though there's no evidence that ever happened.

"No, not DUI. That's driving, drunk, right? I don't drink, ok? Now I'm not saying I don't run over people when I'm sober, OK. That's one thing. If you'll go back and look at NASCAR history, the drivers' history and then you look at baseball, football or basketball, the cleanest sport period, as far as drunk driving or drugs and stuff like that, is NASCAR drivers, because our life is on the line every time we get in a race track, so our folks can't afford to do things like that, because we're responsible not only for ourselves but 42 other race car drivers on the race track. So if you look at role models, then, the role models would be NASCAR drivers."

Petty sounded like the Southern politician he once was when he said skeptical state residents need to take a far-reaching view of the money NASCAR is asking for.

"None of us like change and that's what this would be. And as I get older and I look around and stuff, what I like is not necessarily what the next generation's going to need. So we need to look beyond our nose. We got to go a little further out than one year or five years, 10 years. We got to look at the next crowd coming through, what can our crowd do to make it better for them.

"Because from past experiences, , a lot of things we do, our grandkids are going to have to pay for. So now we're trying to say, 'Let's do something for those people that can generate interest for their state and also bring in money for them."

Walking through the Capitol, Waltrip told me that the reception NASCAR's gotten here is different from what he's seen elsewhere in the country.

"If you tell someone NASCAR wants to build a track, they'll be out there with a parade, saying, 'Where do you want to put it?'"

Biffle, who grew up in Clark County and still has a home in Camas, felt the culture shift when he went left the Northwest to race. And he knows people here don't get NASCAR like fans elsewhere.

"They have this picture in their head that there are these Southern people just burning up all this gas. I recognized the difference right away. I have been unable to say 'y'all.' I just can't put it in a sentence."

Grant Lynch, vice president of International Speedway Corporation, said he will travel to Lewis County next week to look at a possible site for a track there. Gov. Chris Gregoire suggested the other day that might be something that could get enough political support to secure a financing plan.

But Lewis County will be a tough sell for ISC.

"It is a little far away from what we said we needed to be here, and the fact that we wanted to be within 50 miles of Seattle, have 25,000 hotel rooms. And also if you get too far south down I-5, and people start staying in Oregon, our model kind of breaks down a little bit because we want them staying in Washington and spending their dollars in the state of Washington."

UPDATE: Chopp issued this apology today for his comments about Petty:

"This morning I personally apologized to Richard Petty for a comment I made yesterday. It was inappropriate and wrong.

"I appreciate his willingness to meet with me."

UPDATE: At the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog, stilwell writes about Petty, too. And he seems to make a case that there is a legitimate political, not just cultural, argument against NASCAR.

However, if we are going to talk about Richard Petty in a political context, let's briefly examine his history. Petty was a Republican candidate for state-wide office in North Carolina, his home state.

...

So Petty isn't just a rank and file Republican, he ran for state-wide office. Which is his right as an American, but clearly he is more than a race car driver.

Stillwell also says that "Chopp was most likely remembering a reckless driving charge rather than a DUI involving Petty."

Postman says he searched hard for anything involving Petty and a DUI and came up empty. Fair enough, maybe Postman didn't think to search for other traffic offenses. It happens. Postman is still one of our favorite reporters.

No my friend, and one of my favorite commenters and bloggers, I did think to search. And I found that. Or rather one of our researchers did. As well as a speeding ticket, too, from 1982. Both were sent to me last night while I was at the movies. I thought about putting them in, too, later. But neither were what Chopp alleged. Neither had anything to do with alcohol, and Chopp's apology doesn't seem to try to say he was thinking about that reckless driving charge, which I'm sure you know was pled down to a tailgating citation.

We don't want any of them tailgaters here, that's for sure.

This is from a USA Today story on the incident:

Asked by The Associated Press to explain what happened, Petty said, "I run up behind this cat. He slowed up beside a car to block me at about 60 miles an hour. I blinked my lights and he put on his brakes and slowed down to about 50. And I didn't slow down.

"This was a situation that would have come up with anybody at
any time. Instead of shooting each other or throwing rocks at
each other, he retaliated by putting on brakes."

Later, Petty told a TV station, "Now, if it had been a NASCAR
showdown, he would have been over in the ditch somewhere."



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