|JOE CIARDIELLO FOR USN&WR|
Jon Kyl was a NASCAR fan long before he was a politician. The No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate, he recalls his days as an official track observer in the 1960s at Phoenix International Raceway. "You call the race in your part of the track," he says. Now, as the Senate Republican message maker, the racing fan calls the political situation on his side of the aisle, and his NASCAR roots are fast coming into play. That's because NASCAR, like Kyl's progression, has grown into a major sport that is starting to maneuver its way around Washington, and its Hill allies are helping to open doors.
That was evident last week as three top NASCAR drivers lobbied Capitol Hill for a tax law change to help racetracks. Leading the pack: Jeff Burton, whose No. 31 car is making a run for the sport's points leader. Accompanied by drivers Casey Mears and David Stremme, Burton sized up the new NASCAR-Washington relationship during a meeting with Kyl and GOP Sens. John Ensign of Nevada and John Cornyn of Texas. "I hope it's good for both of us."
Ensign, a self-described NASCAR addict, nodded yes. "Our people like these guys," he says. "It's a big deal."
For Kyl, it's more than just good politics: He's still involved in the sport, providing race commentary on Mondays on Phoenix's KMLE-FM. "I just love the sport," he says, adding: "I kind of root for Jeff Burton."