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Ex-NASCAR Exec Revving Up

Moves Home to Virginia and Considers Challenge to Rep. Boucher

Meet Kevin Triplett, the latest link between the high-octane world of NASCAR racing and the demolition derby of campaign politics.

After the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team sponsored by Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) presidential campaign finished first in Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 in Kansas City, and after racing legends Junior Johnson and Darryl Waltrip offered up high-profile endorsements of two North Carolina politicians last cycle, it isn’t too surprising that the former NASCAR official is shifting gears and considering running for Congress next year.

Triplett, who recently stepped down from his post as managing director of business operations for NASCAR, has moved back to his native Virginia and is contemplating a challenge to Rep. Rick Boucher (D) in 2004.

The Republican hails from Clintwood in Boucher’s southwestern 9th district (commonly referred to as the “Fightin’ Ninth”) and late last month moved his family to Boucher’s hometown of Abingdon. The 9th district also includes Bristol, the twin city located in both Virginia and Tennessee where thousands of NASCAR faithful flock each year when the circuit stops at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“A career in public service has intrigued me for a long time, and it is one of the only things I would have left what I was doing for,” Triplett said Wednesday. “I am in the process of talking with a lot of people, a lot of people whose opinions I value a lot to see what the temperature is of things.”

He added: “It is something that interests me to a very high level and I’m very serious about.”

The 38-year-old, who is continuing to do some consulting work for NASCAR, said he would have a firmer grip on his plans by the end of September, at which point he could move forward with forming an exploratory committee or announcing his candidacy.

Although Boucher has not faced a difficult re-election in two decades, state and national GOP officials appear optimistic that Triplett’s candidacy could produce a competitive race in a presidential election year.

“Virginia Republicans are very excited about the prospect to unseat Boucher in a district that heavily favors Republicans,” said one Republican official in the state.

“We think he’s a great candidate,” added National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ed Patru, noting that Triplett is putting together a good team of consultants.

Although the rural, socially conservative district voted for Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential contest, and Democrats have dim hopes of holding the seat when Boucher leaves, the 11-term Congressman remains widely popular back home. In 1982, Boucher ousted veteran Rep. William Wampler (R) and after winning re-election in 1984 with 52 percent he has dipped below the 60 percent mark only once.

“I’m not seen as the typical Democrat,” Boucher said in an interview Wednesday, specifically noting his opposition to gun control and his routine endorsement by the National Rifle Association.

“Few of my constituents would agree with all of my positions, but I believe that a large majority of my constituents have a high level of comfort with what I am doing,” he added.

Boucher said he had heard speculation that Triplett might run next year but other than that he knows little about the former NASCAR official.

“I do not know him,” Boucher said. “I think that most people in my district do not know him.”

Boucher believes other Republicans may also seek to challenge him next year.

“My assumption would be that they will eventually nominate someone who has run for office before and is known in the district or at least has some foundation,” he said.

Last cycle, the candidacy of failed 2001 GOP lieutenant governor nominee Jay Katzen was briefly hyped but quickly fizzled with the Republican’s lackluster fundraising performance. Katzen had carried the 9th district even in losing the 2001 statewide race, but he eventually lost to Boucher 66 percent to 34 percent.

A onetime sportswriter for the Bristol Herald Courier and a former publicist for the late driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., Triplett joined NASCAR in 1994 and spent three years as media coordinator for the organization’s Winston Cup Series. In 1997 he was promoted to director of operations and in October 2001 he became managing director of business operations. He announced in March that he would resign effective in June and move back to Virginia.

According to a report published in March on the NASCAR’s Web site, Triplett never hid his future political aspirations.

“Well, I don’t think it’s any secret that Kevin has been always had an interest in politics and political affairs, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he wound up doing some sort of public service or something of that nature,” said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president for corporate communications, in announcing Triplett’s departure.

Triplett did not make this year’s list of NASCAR’s 25 most powerful people, published annually by The Charlotte Observer, but in 2002 and 2001 he ranked 13th on the list.

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