Throughout NASCAR this week, the biggest question being asked is … why?
Why did Donald Trump decide Monday to blast the circuit’s only African American driver, Bubba Wallace, and by extension NASCAR itself? And why would he do it nearly two weeks after the resolution of after an incident where a rope, fashioned in the form of a noose, was discovered in Wallace’s garage stall?
Why would he do so by divisively and dishonestly stating Wallace participated in a “hoax”? The FBI determined the noose was real, it just wasn’t a hate crime. Either way Wallace had nothing to do with it.
Why would Trump stomp on the show of unity and friendship that occurred during the investigation, where the NASCAR family of drivers and crew members rallied to publicly support Wallace and make clear intimidation and racism weren’t welcome here? The sport was proud of the response.
Why make the Black guy, who was innocent, the culprit and the white guys, who support their friend, the supposed victims? And then why have the White House spokesperson double down and compare it to the situation involving actor Jussie Smollett?
Why? And why NASCAR, of all sports, the one that had been most supportive and welcoming of Trump through the years?
“There’s definitely some misinformed information inside of that tweet that doesn’t represent anything that’s going on,” driver Kevin Harvick told ESPN Radio. “A misinformed tweet is not going to change the unity and direction of our sport and our garage, and the way we feel about each other.”
Harvick is not some liberal activist. Almost no one at NASCAR is. Trump is no stranger to fights with sports stars and organizations — but this isn’t the NBA or NFL, where major figures oppose him and hit him too.
So why NASCAR, the sport that has been exceptionally good to Trump.
Back in February of 2016, when Trump was still considered an underdog to win the Republican nomination for president, then-NASCAR Chairman Brian France, along with drivers Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Chase Elliott, stood on a stage in Valdosta, Georgia, and endorsed his candidacy. Ahead of the critical Super Tuesday primaries they propped up his business acumen and family values, both of which were under withering assault by GOP opponents.
“If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now,” Trump noted that night, basking in the love.
As recently as February, Trump received a rousing welcome at the Daytona 500, where the presidential motorcade, including “the Beast” limo, even took a lap around the famed superspeedway.
“We’re honored,” Daytona International Speedway president Chip Wile said of Trump’s attendance.
So why go after these guys, just as the focus was returning to racing? And why do it via lies and distortions? Forget loyalty, how about accuracy? Why just make stuff up about a supposed friend?
Whatever the reason, this was a disaster for NASCAR. There are plenty of Trump supporters who will believe his baseless version of the events, not the FBI’s or NASCAR’s.
Trump has long practiced the art of the cancel culture, including effectively impacting the NFL ratings, a sport far stronger than NASCAR. There will be some who join his apparent disdain here and stop watching or attending races.
Already struggling with shrinking long term popularity, NASCAR doesn’t need a fight with any president, let alone this one. It’s why its statement this week was soft, merely noting it “continues to stand tall with Bubba, our competitors and everyone who makes our sport welcoming and inclusive for all racing fans.”
It’s certainly possible Trump sees this as playing to his base. There may not be a sport that has a greater portion of Trump voters. Some 67 percent of self-identified NASCAR fans said they supported him according to a 2019 Zogby poll. In some race markets, that number is far higher.
Still, the number also speaks to the diversity of the NASCAR fan base. Trump is very popular, but it isn’t universal. Fans come from all over the country, all income levels, demographics, creeds and, yes, skin colors.
Half million dollar recreational vehicles line the infield campgrounds. Tracks stretch from New England to the Napa Valley. There are a lot more American flags and driver flags (and even SEC football flags) flapping in those infields than confederate ones.
The vast majority of NASCAR fans (no matter who they vote for) just want to watch a race. They may tolerate the more extreme elements, but they don’t embrace them. Almost everyone on race weekend is eager to meet new people and share their passion and knowledge of the sport (not to mention a few beers).
It’s a big rollicking circus, a family even. It’s fantastic. A love of fast cars isn’t political. Or it didn’t used to be.
Most fans, again no matter their politics, are intelligent and informed enough to know what Trump said about Wallace and NASCAR itself was wholly inaccurate.
And those inside the sport who have always welcomed and propped up Trump (especially when he needed it most) know, far better than the White House, the who, what, when and where of the situation.
Which leaves them with nothing left but to wonder … why?
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