This Fourth of July, Daytona and NASCAR will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Richard Petty’s last and final win of his career. The significance of that race and The King‘s 200th win in NASCAR history goes further than just being sport, it also marked the first day that an acting United States President visited a NASCAR race.
On that day in 1984, Ronald Reagan tried a new approach to reaching the American Public during a re-election campaign trail in an attempt to reach some of the NASCAR Dad votes out there, a Republican trademark that continues to this day.
Richard Petty would sum up the level of importance of the President’s visit in classic Petty terms.
“You know, we got the president of the United States on the sports page, and the president of the United States got us on the front page. So it was a pretty good tradeoff.”
Following Reagan’s eight years as President, the next reigning President to visit a NASCAR race was when George H. Bush attended the 1992 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. Bush was attempting to get re-elected and was looking for support from the NASCAR fan that fit a demographic strategists had said wasn’t fully tapped.
The pie-charts were so strong and convincing in 1992 that the Democratic Party thought they needed to get their slice of the pie for their candidate Bill Clinton.
The President took his act to NASCAR on Fourth of July weekend, so Clinton’s staff took him to Darlington for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. The crowd showed they were not a fan of the Arkansas Governor and let him have it.
However, Clinton got his share of the votes despite the boos and won to become our 42nd President.
I had my own Presidential experience at a NASCAR race in 2004 for the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt Jr won. George W. Bush, who was one of the bigger sports fans among all Presidents, decided to make a visit to NASCAR’s season opener.
Why not? It’s the highest rated event of the year for NASCAR and will be a great opportunity to jump start the re-election campaign trail using this venue like no other President has before him.
I remember the race vividly because I watched most of it stuck on the concourse by the concession stand. There was a brigade of about thirty black Chevy Tahoe’s that came rolling up through the concourse and everyone had to freeze as Bush was going to the television booth.
The race had just started and I was pinned in and all of in line were told not to move. We couldn’t go to our seats as sharp shooters dressed in black SWAT gear peered through the cracks of the windows in the cars.
It wasn’t all bad; I mean I had all the beer I could I buy, a monitor to watch the race in front of me, and I could still hear the cars, and smell the fuel and burnt rubber from the track.
Luckily I didn’t have to go to the restroom until they left. Unluckily, however, is that GW didn’t even flip me a sawbuck for the inconvenience. He could have bought me a beer, right?
After looking back at NASCAR’s impact and how it’s been used by Politicians for the last 25 years, I started to think back in time at some of our other Presidents and whether or not they would have used NASCAR the way they do today given it was equally popular then as today.
A guy like Richard Nixon would have likely went just to be accepted and loved by his constituents, much the way he used his publicized meeting with Elvis as way to show the American public he was hip.
Lyndon Johnson would have definitely been at a stock car race in Texas. He supported his Texas sports so well that he even became the first President to attend an exhibition game played between his Astros and the Yankees.
With Texas Terry and Bobby Labonte in the series and doing very well, Johnson would have surely made an event as a show of support for his fellow Texans.
John F. Kennedy likely would have skipped a NASCAR invite. He had the votes, public support, was from the Northeast, and more into football than anything else. Besides being a very busy man, several accounts say much of the free time he had was spent in Hollywood visiting one of his American supporters.
Dwight D. Eisenhower showed up for Washington Senator games throughout his tenure in office and played minor league baseball prior to West Point. Getting him to come to a stock car race may have been tough, but it’s likely that one of the many armed forces sponsorships of today would have brought the General to a track.
I could just imagine the die-cast sales from the Army Five-Star General Chevrolet on QVC. It would rival one of Dale Jr’s many schemes in sales.
Harry Truman may not have attended a race during his day, but definitely would have in today’s era with drivers like the Wallace brothers, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, and Ken Schrader all participating from his home state of Missouri. Truman loved going to baseball games and being around his people at the events.
Franklin Roosevelt liked baseball and attended a few, but his immobility and attempting to keep it from the American public as much as possible would have kept him away. He loved cars, but his image was very important.
Couple that with him being a high society New Yorker and it just doesn’t fit into the stereotypical NASCAR setting.
Woodrow Wilson and William H. Taft spent more time at the baseball ball parks than most of our early Presidents, so it’s likely that given today’s climate with the thousands gathering that they may have found themselves at a NASCAR race with a chance to be around such a festive occasion that would lead to over 100,000 Americans to show up for an event.
Taft loved baseball so much that the only time he cancelled a scheduled appearance at the baseball park was because of required duties following the Titanic sinking in 1912.
Following the Civil war, we didn’t have any southern Presidents until Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office only because America had to, and Texas isn’t even the real south that we all know.
Talk about some serious mistrust and holding a grudge…
It wasn’t until 1976 that NASCAR got a little play in the political arena with Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter campaigning for Presidential votes at an Atlanta NASCAR Winston Cup race.
A few months later, Carter was sworn in as our 39th President of the United States and became the first southern President elected since Zachary Taylor in 1849.
Prior to Taylor, eight of the eleven Presidents hailed from southern States with six of them being from the NASCAR rich heritage in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
While most of our founding fathers were of the Aristocratic nature, they surely would have supported an event that was so prominently featured in their state with so many of their voters attending.
They likely would have led the charge to build luxury boxes in order to keep their distance from the masses, but seen just enough to portray an image and be seen by their public.
Not a lot has changed from now to then as far as attempting to win over votes and giving the public an impression or approving image of themselves. With NASCAR being so popular in today’s America, their fans vote is an important piece of political strategy for any campaign, but the candidate has to pull off and sell himself.
The NASCAR fan has shown over the years to be the most loyal supporters of a wide array of sponsorship brands. If a candidate can strike that nerve the way Tide or Budweiser has in the fans homes, they have won themselves quite a few shares in the market place called America.
So while we haven’t seen Barack Obama at a NASCAR event just yet, despite a standing offer from NASCAR President Brian France, we have seen our 44th President use the tool of relating to his constituents by being excited about sporting things America likes such as the Super Bowl, NCAA Brackets, and the NBA Playoffs.
Come 2012, depending on how things have gone with public opinion, the NASCAR card may have to be played by our President to ensure another term.
So far the NASCAR card has prevailed two to one in favor of the incumbent while visiting a NASCAR event.