-- Is the land of lattes ready to join NASCAR Nation? The sport's leaders are betting on it with a pitch for a racetrack near Seattle, the second attempt in two years to lay tracks in the Northwest.
The region is the home of two of NASCAR's hottest drivers -- including Greg Biffle, this year's second-place finisher -- and is a nagging dark spot on the map for one of the country's fastest-growing sports.
But those who control the state's purse strings don't seem sold on the idea, with some saying they don't hear much clamor for the South's reigning entertainment export.
"It's sort of like if I said, 'Gosh, I really would look beautiful in this fur coat,'" said state Sen. Margarita Prentice (D), head of a powerful budget committee. "And you would say, 'Do you really need it?' "
Northwest NASCAR supporters disagree, and say the proposed 83,000-seat facility would bring a windfall of tourist spending and development to western Washington.
For Tammy Kahne, a racetrack near home would mean more than another chance to see live racing. For one thing, she'd be able to see her son, Kasey, NASCAR's 2004 rookie of the year, a bit more often.
"I think we're getting more and more of a fan base in Washington. NASCAR's growing like crazy," Kahne said as customers browsed through official shirts, hats, lunch boxes and other paraphernalia at the official Kasey Kahne merchandise shop she runs in their hometown of Enumclaw, Wash.
The plan for a NASCAR track in western Washington was unveiled last week by officials from NASCAR's sister company, International Speedway Corp., of Daytona, Fla.
Speedway Corp.'s vision for a Northwest raceway would cost $345 million, and the company says it's willing to put up nearly half the cash and cover any cost overruns. The rest would come from state-backed bonds financed by a portion of state sales tax collections and a new levy on racetrack admissions.
The track would be publicly owned on land in rural Kitsap County, just across Puget Sound from Seattle and accessible by bridge and ferry -- although many question the area's ability to handle race-day traffic. A similar plan for a track north of Seattle died when local officials recoiled at the price tag.
A Speedway Corp. subsidiary would lease the racetrack, preferably for at least 50 years.
Racetrack backers say the plan carries sure economic benefit for the state -- not only paying its own way with increased tax revenue, but returning $43 million to public coffers over the 25-year life of the bonds.
"We're putting $166 million of our stockholders' money toward this. We're not going to do that if we can't deliver on making the thing a success," said Grant Lynch, a Speedway Corp. vice president.
The new track also would spread NASCAR's influence at a time when the sport is moving into the top echelon of national spectator sports. Speedway has been negotiating to build a racetrack on Staten Island, N.Y.
"To truly be a major sport by today's standards, you have to have an imprint coast to coast, north and south, and we have a big void in the Northwest," said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. "At one time, we had a big void everywhere but the Southeast."
But does the typically liberal and environmentally conscious Northwest really offer a plum audience for NASCAR, a sport more often associated with blue-collar living than blue-state politics?
Ed Newbold, a wildlife artist who sells prints of orcas, salmon and other wildlife from a shop in Seattle's Pike Place Market, ran advertisements in both of the city's daily newspapers, asking: "How about nothing for NASCAR?"
Newbold criticizes auto racing as a male-dominated sport "that promotes risk-taking, speeding, fossil fuel waste and noise pollution." And he compares drivers unfavorably with other professional athletes "who don't use gasoline to do the hard work."
But beyond cultural conflicts, Newbold thinks the real problem is money.
"They're good people," he said. "But why bust the treasury for them?"
For Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat who hails from the track's target area, the answer is simple: The track would bring lots of new tax revenue, floods of visitors and national media attention
"The impression is that you're going to have a facility there that is full of backyard mechanics and guys in muscle shirts and grease under their fingernails. But that's not the case," Owen said. "You're getting everything from the everyday Joe and Jane to the very wealthy."
Speedway Corp. officials have waged a campaign to influence policymakers, hiring a top Seattle public relations firm and helping to pay for trips to other racetracks for Owen and state lawmakers.
That effort, however, may not give the proposal much traction in the Democrat-controlled statehouse.
Lawmakers still remember the furor over state-financed stadium deals that gave baseball's Mariners and the NFL's Seahawks shiny new homes.
State Sen. Tim Sheldon Sheldon (D), who thinks the track would be an economic boon, was a leading opponent of the deal to publicly pay for the Seahawks' stadium. He'd like to see Speedway Corp. pay for the entire racetrack proposal, as it has pledged to do in New York.
"One individual wrote me a letter and said, 'I don't need a racetrack. I already own a baseball stadium and a football stadium,' " Sheldon said.