(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Does NASCAR Have a Donald Trump Problem Going Forward?

In February 2020, NASCAR was rolling out the red carpet for Donald Trump at its season-opening Daytona 500. The first sitting U.S. President to visit a race since George W. Bush in 2004 arrived to great fanfare and support from track officials. He couldn’t have been happier addressing the crowd, giving the “start your engines” command and then driving on the racetrack himself.

That all seems like another lifetime ago. But here we are, less than four months later, and a once-“terrific” relationship between Trump and NASCAR has turned into some Twitter trolling. Exhibit A: July 6, 2020.

That post came two weeks after a noose was found in Bubba Wallace‘s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. The FBI investigation that followed ended with no evidence a hate crime was committed. In between came a full field of 40 drivers pushing Wallace’s No. 43 to the grid, some emotional assumptions by NASCAR President Steve Phelps that never came to fruition, and a whole lot of spirited debate.

The incident followed two more weeks of NASCAR making national news with their June 10 ban of the Confederate flag from all racetracks. It’s a decision that came on the heels of Wallace pushing for a rule change on CNN Tonight With Don Lemon while revealing a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme that ran at Martinsville Speedway. It all totaled up to more off-track noise in a month than NASCAR typically makes in a year.

And you know what was lost in all that? The racing. One of the best Cup Series events at Talladega in the last 10 years. Maybe longer. And now yesterday’s exciting finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is pushed to the back pages, Kevin Harvick kissing the bricks a second straight year after Denny Hamlin crashed while leading.

Instead, you’re on a NASCAR website reading about politics and social justice all over again. The tweet caused the expected response from Wallace, choosing the high road instead of responding directly to Trump.

There was also a NASCAR statement professing support, along with some pointed comments from Richard Petty Motorsports owner Andy Murstein.

“I find it hard to believe that the President would send out such a misinformed tweet,” Murstein said. “Perhaps one of his staff did it without his knowledge or he doesn’t know the facts. I could, of course. go on and on, but a picture is worth a thousand words. Bubba has reacted in a truthful, professional, levelheaded and positive manner. The NASCAR community, and those in the know, all stand by him.”

But a funny thing happened this time after Trump’s tweet. Those 40 drivers in solidarity at Talladega were awfully quiet. Sure, Jimmie Johnson posted #IStandWithBubba. Tyler Reddick posted a passionate defense of what the drivers did to support Wallace. And …

On the Cup side, that was about it. In fact, Reddick’s initial post wound up deleted with a more subtle jab retweeted in its place from FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass. There’s no official word if anyone at Richard Childress Racing, Reddick’s employer, forced a change of heart.

The other 38 drivers have yet to be heard from. And to be honest? The more politics seeps into the conversation, courtesy a Republican president running for reelection, the harder it’s going to be for them to agree.

Don’t blame the drivers for that. Don’t blame Trump. That’s simple human nature. No one person, on either side, is going to get 100% of the vote. Even if you think the current president is presiding over a total disaster, just look at the Great Depression of 1932. The rise of FDR also came with his opponent, Herbert Hoover, pulling roughly 40% of the popular vote.

Are you with me against racism? I’d hope the entire garage would say, “100%.” But when that statement is tweaked to say, “Are you with me against racism … and the only way you can show that is by voting against a President Trump I feel is against it?”

Uh-oh. I see some drivers shrinking away into the shadows.

Meanwhile, Trump, in the midst of carpetbagging the sport, has sunk some financial teeth into the sport through a super PAC. (The irony!) At the same time he’s crowing about record low ratings, the No. 32 driven by Corey Lajoie ran this weekend with #Trump2020 as its primary sponsor. The Patriots of America PAC is scheduled for eight more races on the car until the presidential election in November.

It’s no surprise, then, Go FAS Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire wasn’t exactly pimping out his #IStandWithBubba shirt. Instead, he chose a bizarre mix of alternative facts that better fit his worldview.

“I disagree with the ones who said he was calling out Bubba,” St. Hilaire said to Jeff Gluck of The Athletic. “To call people racist, it’s not fair to people who really aren’t. I just don’t think it’s fair to say that until you know someone.

“I don’t like to see how things are working. We have a very divided country. I just want to be a small part of fixing that. Not sure how we’re going to do that today (after the tweet), but there’s a little bit of hope out there.”

I can’t put enough sidestep .GIFs to describe what those two paragraphs meant. There’s enough spin in there to turn Harvick clear sideways off turn 4 and let Matt Kenseth slip by for that Indianapolis win instead.

Bottom line, Mr. St. Hilaire wasn’t criticizing the president of the United States, now, was he? It makes total sense; if they criticized me, and I’m putting my name on the car, I’d sure as hell want that money back.

So now, NASCAR is stuck in the mud, part of the culture wars defining America off the track while becoming the focal point of the upcoming presidential election. They can’t escape Trump, and vice versa, the same way the national anthem began to dominate the NFL conversation throughout their 2017 season.

Which brings us to a point I’ve gone over before. Maybe I should be more blunt?

Sports are, at heart, designed for the fan to relax and enjoy. Politics is a national debate resigned to CNN, MSNBC, FOX News or your pundit channel of choice. Ne’er the two shall mix or disgruntled, emotionally drained fans tend to seek their stress relief elsewhere.

NASCAR hasn’t hit that pressure valve yet, at least on paper. On the contrary, Indianapolis ratings were up 46% year-to-year, the most-watched edition of the race since 2017. It was an immediate, factual rebuttal of Trump’s tweet about a record low audience tuning in.

But the president doesn’t like to be proven wrong. Chances are, he’s not going anywhere on this issue anytime soon. Will all sides be able to keep it together through the mess?

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The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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20 comments

  1. Avatar

    Nice for you to be able to “put politics aside” when they’re not coming after you

  2. Avatar

    If NASCAR does have a Donald Trump problem, just add it to the list of problems that NASCAR has created by not staying true to it self and the fans.

  3. Avatar

    Before the ratings victory lap takes place, maybe some facts are in order. It is 2020, so to proclaim something as the best since way back in 2017 isn’t terribly lofty. Also consider that short of golf, there was no live opposition Sunday. In addition, the 2018 and 2019 editions were run in September, the former on a Monday and latter on Sunday against Week 1 NFL games.
    I would argue that a 46% increase given these factors is muted quite a bit.

  4. Avatar

    Jimmy Johnson and Tyler Reddick Stand with Bubba, are the rest of NASCAR showing there true colors by staying silent, as for corey lajoie and his owner they both showed where they stand and it’s not with Bubba, they both have chosen to stand with hate

    • Avatar

      Perhaps the others are following the timeless axiom – it’s better to remain silent and thought a fool, rather than speak and remove all doubt. “Bubba” had the opportunity to show true leadership by being honest and defusing a controversy. He could have said along the lines of – While it’s unfortunate that the track employee who was asked to tie hand-hold loops for the garage doors elected to use a hangman’s knot, it’s highly unlikely that there was anymore to it other than a good sturdy knot. But “Bubba” has elected to continue the nonsense. I think there was a lot of actual hatred on display in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia this past weekend – but one would have to actually be honest to assign the blame.. and that simply isn’t part of the game plan here.

    • Avatar

      steve your full of shit

    • Avatar

      So if people don’t do/behave/say/believe exactly the way YOU think they should, then they are hateful, or God forbid, a racist BY DEFAULT. There is no middle ground, there is no tolerance, there is only the absolute,,,, if you aren’t with me than you are against me.

      Bite me douche bag. Now I wouldn’t walk with Bubba just to piss you off.

      BTW, didn’t you see all the drivers walk down pit road before the race? I guess that wasn’t good enough for you.

      • Avatar

        I wish we could get back to when using the word Racist actually meant something – it’s so overblown, incorrectly used – and yes Bill to your point – automatically assumed when people disagree. It waters down the actual amount of hatred and shame that word used to carry.

        I love the sport
        I love that the awareness of what’s happening is happening all over.
        I love that my favorite driver has spoken up to the inequality (and it’s not JJ or BW)
        I love that as much as i don’t agree with some of what’s said on here (articles or comments) that people are expressing themselves

        I hate that this medium allows people to be so short in responding to a feeling, rather than the topic
        I hate that it turns into “you’re either for me or against me – and if you’re against me – you can *insert language here*

        I am of the mind – that we’re all really smart people. And that most of you don’t believe that a noose has any place in any format anywhere. And that most of you realize that the flag banned isn’t really the confederate flag, it’s the battle flag of the south (originated in Virginia) – and that it does represent a division in our country – and in reality isn’t representative of maybe most here.

        So while i get that we all hate politics in the sport – I’ve never heard a bad thing about Reagan being at the ’84 500, and I barely heard anything about the Trump sponsored car in the past, nor him being grand marshal for the Daytona 500, I also didn’t hear anything bad about when the champion in invited to the white house – regardless of the affiliate party of the sitting president.

        Politics will always be in sport, movies, television, and anything else involving humans. We are, after all – only human.

        I suspect someone will curse me out – as that tends to happen when i post – but i guess that’s part of free will.

        best to you all. enjoy Kentucky.

        • Avatar

          Someone would need to have a really closed mind or have bad comprehension skills to curse you out. You didn’t say anything the least bit controversial in my opinion. Just a lucid, rational post which, unfortunately, is in danger of becoming extinct.

  5. Avatar

    As a 47 year fan I’ve had enough. Sadly the only noose to be found is around NASCAR’s own self imposed neck. You can’t have this, but they can have that. If you don’t stand here you are racist, if you stand there you are racist. NASCAR forgot they are in the entertainment business, and I’m no longer entertained. I spend a lot of money every year with multiple season tickets in the Club setting at multiple tracks and I’m done contributing to a political organization. Constant squabbling and jabs going each way. NASCAR started this crap and to blame Trump for voicing his opinion on the situation is disingenuous at best. don’t light the fire if you can’t stand the heat.

  6. Avatar

    Nascar has a problem as it tries to position itself with younger fans, or maybe potential fans. To do so they need to move forward, while any association with Trump, even if unsolicited, is seen as tying them to the past.
    But we shall see if it even matters after November.

  7. Avatar

    what every one needs to concentrate on is ALL LIVES MATTER not being politicaly corret

  8. Avatar
    Healthy Skeptic

    Nice of you to perpetuate the controversy by calling the loop knot a “noose.” While I’ll concede to it did look like a noose, it obviously was not. A noose is a specific type knot that’s useless in a garage door pull rope. Heck, even Bubba Wallace now acknowledges this fact since he’s now taking to calling it a “non-functioning noose” – whatever that’s supposed to mean.

    Perhaps the other drivers have rightly stepped back because they can see how ham-handed this incident was handled. NASCAR themselves were told before publicly announcing this so-called noose was discovered that the knot had been seen there by another team member last fall. How do we know this? Because the last Cup team to use the stall was the Wood Brothers and they released a statement saying how a member of their team told NASCAR exactly that. Even the very picture NASCAR took on Sunday to show the world this evil noose still hanging in the stall had a member of the 21 team visible in it.

    Now why would NASCAR, Bubba Wallace and RPM go public on Monday with their sad tale of EVIL ALABAMA racism when they knew darn well that knot had been in that stall since at least last fall and it could not have possibly been intentionally left there for their only driver of color to see it? Who could have possibly benefited from such publicity in these troubled times? Why NASCAR was just making such great strides too with their righteous ban on that great symbol of hate, the confederate flag.

    That answer is obvious considering the exact way the subsequent days played out in the national media.

  9. Avatar

    Tough situation for everyone. It would be nice if the political landscape would be void in the Sport, but Steve Phelps sought to go down that path and a very explosive time. Remember they (NASCAR) tried to distance itself one other time from the fans who made the sport, and it is still in a sort of recovery mode and then tried it again.
    Most of the ticket-purchasers are moderate to conservative and right-wing conservative. NASCAR needs them. However and whatever the reason, the old foot got shot again. Poor management and poor decision-making processes and not allowing for the law of unintended consequences got us here. Harry Houdini may not have escaped this one.

  10. Avatar

    I guess all that ass kissing nascar gave trump at the daytona 500 didnt last long. All the networks and nascar top brass was falling all over theirselves. They would do anything for some suck up time in the news.

  11. Avatar

    After nascar allowed the employees and drivers and crews to disrespect out flag and anthem, I no longer care about nascar. Coming from a veteran that is highly offended.
    nascar forgot about us (veterans) and has thrown mud in our faces supporting a communist movement.
    Well quite a number of us are forgetting nascar!!!

  12. Avatar

    Is this new censorship policy based on protecting Rick Hendrick ?