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NASCAR sponsorships, other racing issues still on agenda

- Washington correspondent
Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

The Minnesota Democrat out to get rid of the Pentagon's sponsorships for NASCAR teams says she won't back away from her efforts and will broaden her fight to repeal tax breaks for track owners, too.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum says her work could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

But Department of Defense officials and lawmakers from North Carolina say the sponsorships help military recruitment, and that the tax breaks could save jobs in the struggling economy.

In an interview Friday, McCollum said it doesn't make sense to keep the benefits when cuts are being made to community health care, programs for homeless veterans and Head Start.

She plans to file legislation to prohibit Pentagon sponsorships of dragsters, Indy cars, stock cars and motorcycle racing, affecting just about every level of motorsports.

"We should take a critical eye and a critical look and say, 'Is this an appropriate role for the government?'" McCollum told the Observer Friday.

McCollum filed an amendment this month to prohibit the Defense Department from spending money to sponsor NASCAR teams. The amendment came as the House, led by the Republican Party, spent days wrestling with $60 billion in cuts to the current budget.

In the days before the vote, her office logged angry calls from across NASCAR country, including from North Carolina. But her chief of staff said the office also received calls from tea party supporters who backed McCollum's amendment.

Her amendment failed, 281-148. Of North Carolina's delegation, every House member but Republican Walter Jones voted against it.

In a separate issue, race track owners receive tax breaks, worth $45 million in 2010 and 2011. The deal allows them to accelerate the depreciation of amenities and other improvements to their tracks.

Among the nation's major race track owners and beneficiaries of the tax break is Bruton Smith, who owns Charlotte Motor Speedway. Smith could not be reached for comment Friday.

McCollum said she'll file legislation to repeal that tax depreciation benefit.

Republican U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, whose profile photo on Twitter last week was the No. 3 logo in memory of Dale Earnhardt, represents a congressional district just west of Charlotte that's home to about half of NASCAR's teams.

McHenry spoke against McCollum's amendment a week ago on the House floor. He supported other cuts and cast more than 100 votes on a variety of programs.

McHenry said in an interview this week that McCollum's goal didn't seem to be about saving money. He pointed out that the two bills she now is considering - killing the raceway tax breaks and banning driver sponsorships - are aimed at the same sport.

"This shows that she is on the warpath against NASCAR," McHenry said. "This is more about her disdain for NASCAR than it really is about saving taxpayers' money."

Now, McCollum said she'll file legislation to restrict the Department of Defense from spending money on certain sponsorships. The department now spends promotional money for drag racing, motocross and even snowmobile races, according to her office.

The largest amount may be the $20 million the National Guard spends to sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver. The U.S. Army pays $7.4 million to sponsor Ryan Newman. The U.S. Air Force spends $1.6 million to sponsor AJ Allmendinger.

The Army spends an additional $8 million for NASCAR programs on its recruiting efforts. It puts $3.9 million more into the sponsorship of Tony Schumacher's NHRA dragster.

The Air Force's NASCAR spending is less than 2 percent of its marketing budget. The National Guard's outlay last year, $32.7 million, represented 14 percent of its marketing budget.

Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley said the Army's NASCAR sponsorship has dropped more than a third since 2009.

Although the stopgap spending bill heads to the U.S. Senate next week, the NASCAR debate hasn't reached that chamber. In an unrelated news conference Friday at Charlotte's NASCAR Plaza, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan wouldn't touch the issue.

She turned a question about the Pentagon's sponsorships into an answer about the Democratic convention coming to town.

"You know, I think what I'm excited about is the 2012 convention coming to Charlotte," Hagan said. "And I think the NASCAR Hall of Fame will have thousands and thousands of visitors coming in at that point."

The Associated Press and Charlotte Observer staff writer Christina Rexrode contributed to this report.

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