DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A local church set up shop for a 10 a.m. service amidst the tents and campers inside turns 3 and 4 at Daytona International Speedway.
The service, which started promptly at 10 a.m. with a song, had some empty seats underneath its roadside tent. Three men wearing Trump 2020 hats strolled past, took a glance and kept on walking.
You really couldn’t blame them. The real revival with race grand marshal President Donald Trump wasn’t for another five hours.
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NASCAR has long been friendly to the GOP and Republican presidents. Ronald Reagan attended the July 4 race at Daytona in 1984, a race that ended up as the final victory of Richard Petty’s storied career. Reagan mingled throughout the race and after, even staying to have a post-race meal with drivers in the garage.
George W. Bush attended the Daytona 500 in 2004. That, like 2020 is for Trump, was a re-election year. Bush gave the command for drivers to start their engines and watched the first half of the race before heading to an event in Tampa.
What happened Sunday was NASCAR’s strongest political intermingling yet.
Trump flags have been omnipresent throughout the infield at Daytona since the president’s inauguration. This weekend, they multiplied. The only flag more popular than a Trump 2020 flag at Daytona was an American flag. And the most popular Trump flag was one that said “no more bull----” below his last name.
For a president that sees the presidency as an extension of himself, the Trump flags flying in the ocean breeze with the American flags were undoubtedly a glorious site when he entered the track from the airport at approximately 1:20 p.m.
About an hour later, Trump addressed the crowd. Then he returned for the race’s opening ceremonies before giving the command and leading the field on a pace lap in the presidential limousine.
“Drivers, It was an honor to officially open this year’s Daytona 500 and drive the first Parade Lap with you,” Trump’s radio message to the 40 drivers in the field on the pace lap said. “Thank you. You are the best in the world at what you do, and I want to wish you luck in today’s Daytona 500. I hope you all have a fantastic race.
”You should all be proud to be competing in this incredible event. The Daytona 500 is the biggest race in the world and all of America is watching. Give the fans a great show.
”And to all the race fans. I love your passion for this sport. I hope you enjoy The Great American Race. God Bless you and God Bless the United States of America.”
As Trump’s limo circled the track, he was greeted with a raucous ovation. Chants of “USA, USA, USA” and “Four more years” broke out, much like they would have at a Trump campaign rally.
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When then-NASCAR CEO Brian France and assorted drivers appeared at a Trump rally in 2016, NASCAR said that France’s endorsement of the future president was a “personal and private” one and not one on behalf of the racing governing body.
Trump didn’t see it that way. He said numerous times that had received the endorsement of NASCAR itself — an endorsement by France that came seven months after NASCAR moved the postseason banquets for the Truck Series and Xfinity Series from Trump’s Doral, Florida, resort after pressure from Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis.
Born in Lebanon, the influential Lemonis had, like many others, taken issue with comments about immigrants by Trump at the start of his presidential candidacy. Had NASCAR kept the awards banquet at Doral, Lemonis said that no one from his company that sponsors the Truck Series would attend the event.
The Truck and Xfinity Series banquets are now in Charlotte. France, meanwhile, made his first public appearance at a NASCAR race Sunday since he was arrested in August 2018 on DWI and drug possession charges. He was spotted getting off Air Force One with the president and Donald Trump Jr. after the plane landed at the Daytona Beach International Airport just outside the speedway.
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The president’s public schedule for Sunday had him leaving the track eight minutes before the race began. But after Trump’s limousine led the field on a pace lap it turned into the infield and parked near the 500 Club building. It appeared Trump was going to stay for at least a few laps of green flag racing.
That didn’t happen. Rain started falling at Daytona just before the race — moved back approximately 15 minutes for Trump’s presence as the grand marshal — and the president’s motorcade left the track to head back to Air Force One not long after the rain delay commenced.
While he didn’t see any racing in-person, Trump certainly got the visuals that he wanted. Air Force One landing on the Daytona airport runway just behind the backstretch is a tremendous sight. The footage of the new “Beast” presidential limousine leading the field before the race will be played in perpetuity. And Trump got the cheers he wanted too. Since he heard boos at the World Series, Trump has been to sporting events with fans that generally lean politically conservative.
NASCAR, however, didn’t get what it wanted. Or at least all of what it wanted, anyway. The energy from Trump’s presence was quickly washed away with two rain delays sandwiching just 20 laps of racing. The fans that went through long and detailed security procedures just to attend the race and were standing in their seats for Trump’s laps around the track were soon running for cover from the rain.
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As television ratings and interest have fallen over the last decade-plus, NASCAR is searching for ways it can find new fans while also keeping the ones that it currently has.
The move to have Trump attend Sunday’s race to such fanfare clearly was an attempt to satiate a fanbase that leans strongly to the right while also ginning up some mainstream attention. But it’s also a move that has a potential downside when it comes to attaining the new fans that NASCAR so desperately craves.
It’s no secret that Trump is the most polarizing president in modern American history. Those that support him do so passionately, and likely had no problem with three-hour security lines at the track if they were there or the pageantry they saw on their screens if they were watching from somewhere else.
But the dislike for this president is sizable too. To many, NASCAR’s feting of the president will spark the good ol’ boy southern stereotypes that the sanctioning body has worked to distance itself from. Or it could have even turned off the segment of fans — however small — that don’t identify as Republican.
NASCAR isn’t in a position to push any fans away in 2020. When Bush attended the race in 2004 he did so to less fanfare and with an approval rating hovering above 50 percent. Most importantly for NASCAR, nearly 18 million people tuned into at least part of the race.
Trump’s approval rating has spiked among his supporters in the wake of his impeachment acquittal and is just a couple points lower than Bush’s was 16 years ago. But just 9.3 million watched the 2019 Daytona 500 — a 47 percent audience decline from that 2004 race. Trump’s appearance Sunday was undoubtedly seen by far, far fewer people live than Bush’s was in 2004.
That can be both good and bad. The stage NASCAR gave Trump wasn’t as popular as the one Bush got in 2004. But fewer people might have seen Trump and turned the channel to something else.
Through the first three years of his presidency, Trump has sought to keep his base energized and happy instead of attempting to build a broader base of support. Sunday, NASCAR took a page out of his playbook and tried something similar. Making an attention-loving president the center of the show in a heavily-red area of a state he carried in 2016 was a move that guaranteed immediate results.
But like with Trump’s presidency and re-election strategy, it still remains to be seen how NASCAR’s embrace of him will play for a sanctioning body that hopes its Cup Series has stopped hemorrhaging viewers and fans. Maybe it backfired and turned potential fans off. Maybe the embrace of Trump will have no impact at all and the rain-delayed race will diminish the appearance’s impact.
On Sunday, one thing was for certain, however. It sure felt good for the drivers and NASCAR power brokers who got to mingle with the president before the race and the thousands of fans in attendance who cheered him on.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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