From Darlington to Talladega, from Loudon to Richmond, NASCAR's baseball-cap wearing legions - some 75 million fans - are an emerging force in the race for the White House. Both Democrats and Republicans are hoping they'll pick their president early and stick with him, much as they do "their" drivers - pretty boy Jeff Gordon, outsider Kurt Busch, or hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. - whose numbers they plaster on cars, hats, and T-shirts.
Moreover, it's a culture that's expanding - a Southern export as much in demand as the Krispy Kreme doughnut.
"We're not talking about the 20 percent of Americans who still live in rural areas - we're talking about small-town people, suburban people, a lot of big-city people, whose roots and orientation are more country than city," says Jim Wright, a Florida sociologist who just published "Fixin' to Git: One fan's love affair with NASCAR's Winston Cup."
This "rural strategy" is a dramatic change for Democrats. They won soccer moms on the appeal of education and gun control, but today's favored demographic is decidedly more rugged: The NASCAR dad goes to church, loves to hunt and fish, and may wear a T-shirt with the slogan "Guns, God, and guts: That's what made America great."
GLESKE, though he counts himself a Democrat, hardly fits a Boston-brownstone stereotype. His passion is motor-cross racing, and he totes his three sons across the South almost weekly, in an RV so large it has its own garage. For Gleske and the firefighters who came to Richmond with him, the weekend is as much a social occasion as a sporting event.
"Sometimes the noise gets in the way of the party," admits firefighter Keith Gent.
It's a cultural divide Democrats are well aware of.
"In the South, white males consider Democrats to be a bunch of wusses," says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Virginia Democrat who orchestrated the Graham sponsorship of driver Jon Wood's truck. "The Democrats have done a terrible job with the culture in the South. And NASCAR is one way that we can move through the culture and start talking about issues and ideology."