August 19, 2009
NASCAR drove straight into the heart of democracy on Wednesday as President Obama welcomed many of the sport's most notable drivers and legends to the South Lawn of the White House. Sadly, nobody did a burnout on the lawn, but that was about the only downside of the entire affair.
It's not the first time that NASCAR drivers have visited the White House, of course; most recent Cup winners, including Jimmie Johnson, have stopped by for a quick Oval Office visit after their seasons. But this was different; this was NASCAR as a whole both receiving the blessing and, in effect, endorsing a Democratic White House that, to put it delicately, much of the NASCAR constituency may not exactly support.
Obama had been coached somewhat; he pronounced the sport "NAZ-CAR" and seemed just slightly uncertain about the format of the Chase -- which, to be fair, puts him in the company of most NASCAR fans. But he's a sports fan and understood the basic concepts just fine; several drivers remarked how relaxed the environment seemed, how conversational.
But this wasn't just about smiles; no, there was political maneuvering at work here. In a move that will surely warm the hearts of NASCAR's faithful, Obama took pains to note that he believes the Big Three automakers belong in NASCAR, and he had high praise for Johnson (whom he compared to Tiger Woods), Jeff Gordon and other NASCAR stars. One of the funnier sidelights of the entire afternoon was the way all the drivers, with the exception of old pro Johnson, seemed like giddy fans around the president. TV cameras caught Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and others posing for pictures the exact same way fans do with them every single weekend.
Yes, this was a promotional, feel-good opportunity, but it was an important symbolic one as well. No sport has been hit harder by the economic downturn than NASCAR, and because of its predominantly right-leaning fanbase, no sport could be more in danger of being marginalized by the current power structure. But both sides made some positive PR steps forward together, and while deep political divisions still exist, perhaps both sides gained a few new fans.
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