WASHINGTON -- On one side of the White House, yellow police tape and metal barriers blocked off a pedestrian boulevard that Tuesday was lined not with camera-toting tourists, but uniformed Secret Service officers. On the other, Brad Keselowski's No. 2 race car sat alongside the Sprint Cup trophy, and the presidential Marine band played soft jazz music as guests took their seats on the South Lawn.
The contrast was by design. One day after three people were killed and at least 180 others injured in a pair of bomb blasts that went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the reigning NASCAR champion was honored at the White House as scheduled. President Barack Obama used the NASCAR visit to emphasize that even in the wake of terror, life must go on.
"We are here today to celebrate a great American sport," Obama told a crowd that included NASCAR chairman Brian France. "Obviously we've had this scheduled for some time, and events have a way of intervening. Obviously, our minds right now are with our fellow Americans and the fans that came from all over the world that went yesterday to run and cheer on another great American sporting event, the Boston Marathon.
"I know the entire NASCAR family shares with me a great sense of loss for the victims, and we pray for their loved ones. And rest assured ? we're going to uncover whoever was responsible for yesterday's cowardly act, find out why they did it, and they will be brought to justice. But one of the things I firmly believe in is that America is strong, and we are resilient, and we don't let such cowardly acts get in the way of our lives."
Keselowski's visit, which continued the long tradition of presidents honoring American sports champions, added weight to that message. Like many other major cities, Washington went on alert after the bomb blasts in Boston, and the increased security presence was evident, particularly around major landmarks such as the White House and the Capitol. Only a few hours before his meeting with Keselowski, Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room that the FBI was investigating the Boston attack as an act of terrorism. Flags around the District flew at half-staff.
It all added to a gloominess that matched the overcast weather, which even seemed to mute the usual radiance of cherry blossom trees in full bloom. In that context, watching the president joke with Keselowski while the Marine band played "Baby, You Can Drive My Car" felt like a long, needed exhale.
"I think he had a great message about the solidarity that sports create," Keselowski said after the ceremony in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. "When you look at a sporting event, you see a nation as one. I think that kind of ties in, especially after a tragedy, how people come together. I think that makes us all realize how common our interests really are, when it seems sometimes they're not. I think sports and things of that nature really showcase the opportunity to continue on, and to have this event despite the tragedy that was yesterday shows events of that nature, of that kind of tragedy, won't slow us down as a country or as a people. And I think it's important to keep carrying on."
Wearing a dark blue suit with an American flag lapel pin, Keselowski toured the White House along with car owner Roger Penske, crew chief Paul Wolfe, and a few team executives. The ceremony itself was held on a South Lawn that offers commanding views of the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial in the distance, not to mention a putting green and children's playground set nearby. The crowd rose as Obama and Keselowski emerged from an arched doorway topped by a presidential seal.
For Keselowski, 29, it was one of those moments that brought home just what it means to be champion.
"It means, boy would I like to win another one," he said, smiling. "Doing events like this, it's the ultimate sign of respect. Honestly, it's just a large honor and something that I'll look back on and cherish forever. Obviously, I love my country, and I do a lot of different things whether it's fly the flag after a race and so forth. And I love history, and I love racing. This is kind of the perfect combination of all three. ? To put all those things together is just remarkable. It makes me want to win this again so I can do this again."
Known as an avid sports fan, Obama used several specific references in his prepared remarks that made it clear he had done his homework. He mentioned Keselowski's upbringing in Michigan as the son and nephew of established drivers, the family-owned race team the NASCAR champion once competed for, and his tipsy celebration after clinching the title in Homestead. "I was telling him -- I was getting tired of seeing (Jimmie) Johnson all the time," Obama quipped. "I understand now, Brad, you and Jimmie are going at it again."
Indeed, Keselowski stands second to the five-time champion by nine points heading to Kansas Speedway this week. But Keselowski also brought a more serious message to Washington, given that his Checkered Flag Foundation hosts a program that helps wounded military members get through rehabilitation. Keselowski was scheduled to meet with wounded service members later Tuesday following his visit to the White House.
Obama also took note of NASCAR's "long tradition of honoring our troops and our veterans. We very much appreciate it," he said. "None of us could do what we do every single day without the men and women who sacrifice for us every single day -- our troops, our veterans, and as we were reminded yesterday once again, the first responders and National Guardsmen who run toward trouble without regard to their own safety."
The Boston attack loomed over everything, perhaps one reason for a very strong press turnout for Keselowski's visit. But there were lighter moments. "Brad offered to let me drive it around the South Lawn," Obama said of the No. 2 car, "but the Secret Service once again said no." Following the ceremony, Keselowski and the president walked over to the vehicle, where they had a long chat.
What did the two talk about in private moments?
"A little bit about Joey Logano," Keselowski said with a laugh, referring to his Penske teammate. "He wanted to know how Joey was doing after his run-in with Tony (Stewart), which I thought was great. I didn't realize he followed that closely. So that was awesome. And then a little bit about my foundation and some of the things that NASCAR does for the troops. Like he said in his speech, NASCAR is a sport that does a does a lot of things for our military ? and that's something, based on the conversation I had with the president, he really appreciates about us."
For Keselowski, the reality of racing may return soon enough -- he and Logano both face potential penalties for parts confiscated from their cars prior to last weekend's event at Texas. But Tuesday, all that seemed very far away as the reigning champion tried to process where he was and who he had just met.
"How do you explain the scenario when you're meeting with the leader of the free world?" Keselowski said. "I'm thinking of the tremendous weight he has on his shoulders, whether it's the tragedy yesterday or anything he has going on. I'm thinking how remarkable it is for him to have made the time to talk to me. I'm certainly not out there fixing any of those problems in the world. So I thought that was very generous."
And in the context of Monday's tragic events, it became a statement about normalcy in American life. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon attacks, some wondered if Tuesday's White House ceremony would go on as planned. But there were Keselowski's car and trophy, sparkling under a hint of sunlight breaking through the clouds. Keselowski never had a doubt.
"I was not surprised. Because I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "Not because it's me being honored, but because of what it means to our country to move on despite those acts, and showcase that they won't rattle us. I really appreciate that. I'm one of those guys who really believes in mental strength and intestinal fortitude, and getting back up on the podium and doing all those things he did today with obviously a tragedy to overcome is not the easy thing to do. But it's the right thing to do."
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