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.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 16, 2020
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.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) July 6, 2020
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.
There is nothing to apologize for when:
–Taking a perceived threat seriously
–People show support for one another
–Making policy to be more inclusive & more welcoming
–Doing what you feel is right, regardless of any perceived business consequences
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 6, 2020
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?
When it come to racing and politics everyone should just STFU racing for most of us is a place to escape our daily bullshit not to keep it going
— Chris Wilke (@ChrisWilke11) July 6, 2020
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?