Former NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champions Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip traveled to Washington State last week to lobby for state assistance in building a new track in Kitsap County. Unfortunately, their visit offered graphic evidence that some old, ugly stereotypes surrounding this sport are still alive and well.
Democratic Rep. Frank Chopp is the Speaker of the House in Washington State, and when questioned about Petty's visit, he asked reporters, “You mean the guy who got picked up for DUI? That guy?" Minutes later, Chopp began to backpedal in vintage politco fashion, saying, “I was told that, so I'm not sure. You better check to make sure it's accurate.”
Too late, Mister Speaker. Much too late.
As most NASCAR fans know, Richard Petty has never been “picked up" for driving drunk, or anything else that I know of. In fact, he is on record as refusing to take part in alcohol-related sponsorships or contingency programs, based on a promise he made to his late mother nearly a half century ago. His Petty Enterprises teams have forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years as a result, and Petty himself has long been a vocal opponent of alcohol abuse and drunken driving.
This the same Rep. Chopp who, at a press conference earlier this month, produced a Wall Street Journal article describing rowdy crowds at Talledega Superspeedway and said, “This is an example of the kind of contact I've had from (House members) about NASCAR.”
Sadly, Rep. Chopp is not alone in his bigotry. Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, was quoted calling International Speedway Corporation (and presumably, NASCAR fans in general), "… not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law."
It’s enough to make you want to load up the cousin/wife and kids, drive the pickup over to Washington, and let grandma sink a tooth into their legs while you spit tabaccy juice on their $800 silk ties.
While Chopp and Seaquist’s comments are insulting at face value, the stigma behind them is much worse. They prove beyond all doubt that there are still members of American society who see NASCAR as a group of overall-wearing, dentally challenged High School dropouts, instead of the widely diverse palate of humanity we know the sport to be. I wonder if Rep. Chopp made similarly insulting comments when the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA all lobbied for new, publicly financed arenas for their Washington franchises in recent years. I wonder if the Speaker of the House chose to turn those simple, public-policy debates into a class war, slandering the reputations of those who disagreed with him politically. Did players and owners of the Seattle Mariners, Seahawks and Sonics face such unjustified personal attacks?
My guess is that they did not.
Happily, not everyone subscribes to the Chopp/Seaquist company line. Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, who sponsored the speedway funding bill, said of his colleagues’ comments, “I've heard a lot of that. Apparently, we have a new class of people that we can discriminate against."
The good people of Kitsap County and Washington State may one day get to weigh-in on whether they want to help fund a NASCAR superspeedway. Some will choose to support the measure, and some won’t. But hopefully, they’ll be allowed to make their decision based on facts, and not a series of tired, antiquated, insulting cliches.