NASCAR’s Earnhardt Jr. hits back at Republican on military sponsorships

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Friday urged a Republican who backed an amendment to end military sponsorship of sports to do his “homework” on NASCAR’s influence by attending a race.

The popular NASCAR driver, who is sponsored by the National Guard, singled out Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) for his sponsorship of an amendment to a defense bill that would prohibit the military from using federal funds to sponsor professional sports teams. 

“I think the Republican from Georgia that is heading the bill hasn't even been to a NASCAR race," Earnhardt said during a media event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, according to multiple reports.

Earnhardt suggested attending a race might change Kingston’s mind.

“Just because he's a Republican from Georgia, he ought to have been to a NASCAR race by now,” he said.

Kingston’s office confirmed that the congressman has never attended a NASCAR race, but said they had yet to receive a formal invitation from Earnhardt.

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The military has long used sports sponsorships as a recruitment tool, and the Army and Air Force each sponsor NASCAR drivers. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the amendment’s other sponsor, has called it “a ridiculous waste of money ... for taxpayers to pay for racing and bass fishing teams.”

Military officials have defended the spending, arguing it gets more bang for their buck due to the wide audience for professional sports. Earnhardt, who has also been sponsored by the Navy in the past, made a similar argument on Friday.

“When we worked with the Navy we had a lot of people we actually recruited at the race track,” he said. “We met a lot of people that just signed up because of the NASCAR exposure.”

Kingston spokesman Chris Crawford sought to clarify that the amendment is not an attack on NASCAR or any other professional sport.

“This is about the need to get our fiscal house in order,” he told The Hill. According to Kingston’s office, the Defense Department spent $96.1 million on sponsorship advertisements in fiscal 2011 and is on track to spend as much as $80.3 million this year. The National Guard is spending $26 million this year to sponsor Earnhardt's team, after spending $20 million in 2010 and $32.7 million in 2009.

“I would encourage them to do a little more homework, get more facts, understand the situation a little better,” Earnhardt urged Congress. “I know that just talking to the Guard — and we went through this before — they can’t stress to me enough about how much this program helps their recruiting, they’re committed to the belief that it has a profound effect on their recruiting, their ability to recruit. I think it’s important for them to be visible and to push their brand and work on their brand, give people the opportunity to know more about how to get involved in the military.”

But Kingston’s spokesman said the congressman is more concerned about supporting the current needs of military service members.

“I’d say that after a dozen trips to the warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan, visits with soldiers and their families at Walter Reed and other military hospitals, constant engagement with troops at the four major military installations in our district, and as a senior member of the Defense Appropriations Committee, Mr. Kingston has a good perspective on the needs of our military,” he said. “In this budget environment and in the face of the deep cuts and troop reductions on the horizon, limited taxpayer resources could be put to better use.”

— This story was updated at 5:28 p.m.