CHICAGO (Reuters) - NASCAR racing cars typically are painted with ads for products like coffee, beer, or tires.
But a conservative political training organization is trying something different this presidential election year -- it's sponsoring a red-white-and-blue car with the message "Keep America Free."
American Majority, which has worked with Tea Party activists but calls itself non-partisan, said it is the first political group to sponsor a NASCAR car and driver for an entire season of the popular stock car races, while also reaching out to voters with information booths outside the track.
"For too long we believe that Hollywood and various media outlets and elected officials have had too much influence on the nation," said Ned Ryun, founder and president of American Majority. "It's time to put America back in the driver seat and we think the NASCAR nation a good place to start."
American Majority will be the primary sponsor of NASCAR driver Jason Bowles and MacDonald Motorsports car #81 for the 2012 Nationwide Series, which will include 14 races before the November presidential election. The car will race first at the flagship Daytona 500 race at Daytona International Speedway, Florida, February 25.
The car is painted red-white-and-blue with the words "Keep America Free" on one end, "American Majority Racing" on the other, and "Pledge To Vote" on the side. Information provided by the campaign will promote conservative fiscal policy, but will not endorse candidates.
Ryun said the "NASCAR nation" skews conservative but not all of NASCAR fans vote. "NASCAR fans have the ability to shape the future of this country, because of the size of the NASCAR nation," Ryun said. He said NASCAR has 75 million fans.
"It's great to reach fans that have never been reached on a level like this," said Bowles. "It's important to this country."
Though first ladies Michelle Obama and Jill Biden got booed by some fans at a NASCAR race last fall, it's not clear that NASCAR fans are overwhelmingly conservative.
As the sport has grown and opened tracks in more densely populated areas such as urban California and Illinois, some analysts say the fan base has diversified.
"I think it's a stereotype that's taken too far," said Danny Hayes, an assistant professor of government at American University in Washington. D.C. "Yes, NASCAR fans tend to be more conservative than the typical American voter, but that doesn't mean it's an overwhelmingly conservative group."
A Media Audit National Report for 2010 found that 27.2 percent of NASCAR fans identified their party affiliation as Democrat, 30.8 percent as Republican and 35.1 percent as independent.
Ryun said the car sponsorship was a "seven-figure" buy, though he didn't provide an exact number. As part of the NASCAR campaign, American Majority also has launched a web site called www.PledgetoVote.com to enable fans to register and learn how they can participate. The site also will feature contests and NASCAR ticket giveaways.
NASCAR fans can also register to vote at information booths on "vendors' row" outside the track, Ryun said.
Political candidates from both parties in the past have tried to appeal to NASCAR fans. Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek sponsored a car for an individual race during his unsuccessful Florida campaign in 2010.
Hayes said the American Majority effort reminded him of both the "Rock the Vote" campaign to get young people to register, and the early days of the United States, when political parties used to hold rallies and parades and provide food and drink to stir up interest.
"This is kind of a modern version of what Andrew Jackson was doing in the 1830s -- making politics something that's taking place where people live," Hayes said of the populist former president.
Hayes said he thought an effort like this is "probably worth trying," but political science research shows the most effective way to get people to vote is to contact them at home. "Only people interested in politics already are going to stop by the booths," Hayes said.
American Majority is funded in part by the conservative Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin, Ryun said. It also gets other donations from foundations and individuals, and charges for training, Ryun said.
(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by XX)
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