WASHINGTON -- Stuffed in a package of proposed corporate tax breaks the Senate passed Tuesday is an order to the Internal Revenue Service: Don't start treating NASCAR like it's something other than a carnival ride.
For three decades, the owners of NASCAR tracks have built new grandstands and added restrooms or concessions using a seven-year depreciation schedule, an arrangement also enjoyed by amusement park owners.
But given the actual life of such grandstands, the IRS has begun challenging whether racetracks and amusement parks should be treated the same. Recently, the agency has been telling track owners they should use depreciation periods of 15 years or more, which would reduce their tax deductions by half on an annual basis. They still could recoup their investment, but it would take twice as long.
NASCAR leaders say they aren't seeking anything special; they just want the tax treatment they've enjoyed in the past put into law.
"We've had this. It's worked, and why mess it up?" said Humpy Wheeler, president of Speedway Motorsports, which operates six tracks. "Everybody's trying to get an economic advantage today, whether it's taxation or whatever it is. There just simply won't be as much construction if we don't have the favorable depreciation."
While track owners are the primary beneficiaries, politicians are conscious of the latest political target demographic: "NASCAR dads." They're white, working-class men who like President Bush but could be persuaded to vote Democratic, particularly in state and local races.
"Politicians react to what's in the news, and NASCAR dads have dominated a lot of the political coverage, rightly or wrongly," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
Herb Branham, communications manager with NASCAR's Nextel Cup series, concedes that could be one reason for the widespread congressional support behind the measure.
"Obviously whenever these types of demographic labels do crop up, they do seem to take on a life of their own," Branham said.
There are 60 co-sponsors in the House - some from virtually every Southern state. The local political motivation can be found in nearly every statement lawmakers have released to tout it.
"All the request says is treat us like you've always treated us," Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., estimates NASCAR's annual impact on North Carolina at $1.5 billion each year. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., also cites the numerous motorsports facilities in his state.
"In the last decade alone, more than a billion dollars has been invested around the country to improve the quality and safety of these facilities - large and small - in reliance on this understanding of the tax law," Santorum said. "It is only fair to provide certainty for the future to allow for continued growth."
Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense says he isn't surprised the NASCAR provision is encountering little resistance in Congress, though he contends it should.
"It's definitely something at face value you really don't want to oppose," Ashdown said. "'They voted against NASCAR' doesn't sound good for anybody running in middle America. It's kind of like opposing subsidies to the Indy speedway and living in Indianapolis. You would be seen as a vile outcast."
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