RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – It got the GOP’s engines revving – a Democratic official suggesting staffers get immunized for several diseases before heading south from Washington and into the Red State wilds of NASCAR country to conduct research at a pair of races.

The reaction on both sides illustrates just how valuable candidates for elected office consider the votes of NASCAR fans who pack grandstands by the thousands every weekend and the donations of business leaders who spend millions to sponsor the sport.

It started last month, when an official with the House Committee on Homeland Security suggested that staff aides get immunizations before visiting health facilities at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway and North Carolina’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where the Bank of America 500 was run Saturday.

In an e-mail, a staffer who works for committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., noted an “unusual need for whomever attending to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B,” as well as “the more normal things – tetanus, diphtheria, and of course, seasonal influenza.”

The note didn’t explain why the committee saw such concern. It didn’t mention NASCAR or the races at the tracks at all. But the implication was enough to draw a snarky complaint from Republican Rep. Robin Hayes, whose district includes Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“I have never heard of immunizations for domestic travel, and … I feel compelled to ask why the heck the committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown,” wrote Hayes.

Thompson responded to Hayes that such immunizations are “are recommended for public safety professionals working in areas such as hospitals, holding areas and similar locations.” But the staffers were only scheduled to visit a few health care facilities – not work at them.

“What do they know about NASCAR that we don’t?” said Dr. David Weber, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Weber said everyone should be up to date on standard vaccinations, he but saw no need for special vaccinations to visit a health care facility or a NASCAR event. Debbie Crane, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said such shots are recommended for “general health” for all adults – but not for any specific circumstance.

“The very idea of immunization is laughable,” said Lowe’s Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler. “It’s like taping your ankles to go to the mailbox.”

He noted that no NASCAR event has ever sparked an outbreak – “other than a few headaches because somebody’s favorite driver ran out of gas, or maybe a morning hangover.”

There are lots of voters at the track, and that makes politicians of both parties regulars at NASCAR. There’s no doubt the crowds trend Republican, but the hasn’t stopped Democrats from seeking support at the races.

In the days leading up to the Bank of America 500, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue held a political reception near the track’s Turn 4. Among those hosting the Democratic gubernatorial candidate were Wheeler, NASCAR president Mike Helton, as well as team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates – both registered Republicans.

Democratic Gov. Mike Easley is one of the sports biggest fans, even wiping out after climbing behind the wheel of a stock car. The Democratic-led state Legislature has paid special attention to NASCAR, granting tax breaks to the many teams based in the Charlotte area.

“Democrats in North Carolina know that their success is built on not conceding business interests to Republicans,” said Ferrel Guillory, who heads the program on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. NASCAR “is big business. This is big economic development.”

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