When President George W. Bush made a stop at the Daytona 500 this past February, it wasn't just to say, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” It was also a shrewd political move — a chance to connect with this election year's hottest demographic: NASCAR Dads.

Like soccer moms in 2000, this potent group is being actively and aggressively pursued by politicians. During his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida ran a red, white and blue “Bob Graham for President” truck in NASCAR races.

But is the term “NASCAR Dad” — coined by a Democratic pollster in 2002 to describe working class, white men who live in rural or suburban areas — really representative of the sport's fan base? No, says Andrew Giangola, NASCAR spokesman. “Some political commentators have depicted NASCAR Dads as a nearly monolithic bloc with virtually homogenous views on many public issues,” he says. “In reality, our fan base — 75 million Americans — is much closer to a cross section of the whole electorate.”

The truth, says Giangola, is that 40 percent of the NASCAR audience is women, more than 20 percent are African-Americans and Hispanics, and 58 percent are married. About 55 percent earn $50,000 a year or higher. Only 38 percent live in the South, with the other fans spread out evenly across the Midwest, West and Northeast regions of the country.

“It's interesting that there used to be a misconception that it was all about blue-collar and country,” said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail. “The reality is that as NASCAR has become a televised sport and gained recognition nationwide, the followers have now grown to a wide group of people.”

Maybe it's just that politicians are finally learning what advertisers have known for years: The NASCAR demo is a large, diverse group of people that can't be ignored. Indeed, NASCAR buffs could be an advertiser's dream. While baseball fans screamed “foul” when some advertiser tried to put a Spiderman 2 logo on the bases, no one would lift an eyebrow in motor racing. Racers brandish ads everywhere — from their cars to every inch of their racing suits.

“It goes back to the way the sport grew up,” says Giangola. “It is an expensive sport. In order for a rider to get on the track, it requires a lot of sponsorship.”

Retailers have recently entered the sponsorship arena. Home Depot sponsors racer Tony Stewart, and Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target now sell NASCAR licensed products, which in 2002 was a $2 billion market.

Retailers also apparently want to be close to the fans. Ted's Montana Grill, IZOD and Mikasa have all signed leases at Legends in Kansas City, Kan., a 750,000-square-foot retail and entertainment development near the Kansas City Speedway.

“NASCAR is definitely a big selling point in our leasing,” says Amy Kraft, marketing and communications manager for Red Development, Legends developer.

Coyote Ugly and Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q, two tenants associated with the NASCAR stereotype, are negotiating leases there. But the center also will include a new T-Rex Restaurant, a prehistoric family adventure concept. Other tenants negotiating for space include fashion retailers Maurice's, Claire's, Linens n' Things and Helzberg Diamonds.

“The fans of NASCAR are very loyal so we feel that if we can become an active participant in the sport that loyalty has the potential to expand to Legends as well,” says Kraft.