DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In the minds of an estimated crowd of nearly 200,000 fans who packed into Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, President Donald Trump’s appearance before the rain-drenched Daytona 500 should have come with a brand-new campaign mantra:
“Make NASCAR Great Again.”
Please, Mr. President, make stock car racing like it was back in the good ol’ days of Reaganomics.
If President Trump could somehow, someway reignite NASCAR’s sinking economy, it would, by far, surpass his presidential record on the surging U.S. economy. NASCAR’s economic downturn over the past decade is well chronicled with TV ratings, track attendance and corporate sponsorships plummeting to a point of panic throughout the sport.
Which is why the presidential appearance at Sunday’s rain-delayed Daytona 500 was at least a temporary windfall for a sport struggling to regain its footing with an ever-changing, less-loyal fan base. Love him or hate him, Trump’s appearance created a once-in-a-generation buzz that NASCAR hasn’t felt since President Ronald Reagan’s historic appearance in Daytona in 1984.
“For 500 heart-pounding miles these fierce competitors will chase the checkered flag … and make their play for pure American glory, and that’s what it is — pure American glory,” Trump told the cheering crowd and a national TV audience before the race began.
At least for an hour before the race on Sunday, NASCAR was at the forefront of not only the sporting world but the free world. NASCAR fans flew flags in the president’s honor, wore T-shirts such as “LGBT — Liberty, Guns, Beer, Trump” and roared when Air Force One flew over the track and landed at nearby Daytona International Airport.
Trump, serving as the race’s grand marshal, then revved up the crowd when he issued the most famous declaration in all of racing, “Gentlemen, start your windshield wipers.” Or at least that’s what he should have proclaimed based on the three hours of rain delays that transpired shortly thereafter. Actually, he commanded, “Gentlemen, start your engines” and many in the crowd began chanting, “Four more years! Four more years!” … and “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Trump then hopped into the presidential limousine — nicknamed “The Beast” — and served as the presidential pace car for the race. When driver Clint Bowyer found out Trump was pacing the field before the start of the race, he said over his car radio, “God, that’s awesome.”
Said Fox TV race broadcaster Mike Joy as the limo sped around the track, “That’s a sight for the ages.” Added NASCAR legend and Fox race analyst Jeff Gordon, “The only thing I wish they had modified on the limo is to put a spoiler on that rear deck — just for NASCAR.”
Many were relating Trump’s appearance at the Daytona 500 to Reagan’s appearance in Daytona at the 1984 Firecracker 400. It’s an understandable connection, but really there is no comparison.
Reagan’s arrival in Daytona in ‘84 ushered in NASCAR as an America boom sport. His appearance came on the Fourth of July, America’s birthday, when NASCAR’s “King” — Richard Petty — won his 200th and final race.
Reagan actually stayed and joined Petty and other drivers for a post-race picnic of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The day ended with country music legend Tammy Wynette up on stage singing her iconic “Stand By Your Man” to a blushing Reagan.
“I think I understand why stock-car racing is becoming so popular,” Reagan said then.
That was at a time when the end of Petty’s legendary career perfectly blended into the heyday of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s immortal career, and NASCAR was off and revving toward becoming an unstoppable commercial success that some predicted might someday surpass the NFL in popularity. TV ratings skyrocketed, corporate sponsorships went through the roof and tracks were expanding.
Fast forward to today when NASCAR is no longer growing but is undergoing enormous shrinking pains. Even the sport’s most popular tracks have had to remove tens of thousands of seats. Daytona, which once had seats to accommodate 159,000 fans, now has a capacity of 101,000.
There are many theories as to what NASCAR can do to fix itself and stop the bleeding, but the worry is that the sport might just be a victim of the times. Take Sunday’s Daytona 500 as an example. Fans spent the entire day braving the traditional traffic and the all-too-common rain delays only to have the race postponed until Monday.
Virtually every sport is trying desperately to find ways to pick up the pace and make itself more viable in today’s Instagram world of short attention spans. Isn’t it ironic that NASCAR, which is built on speed, is one of the most drawn-out, time-consuming sports of them all?
Even though Donald Trump’s appearance Sunday gave this struggling sport a brief moment in the sunshine, it’s going to take more than a presidential visit to stop the rain and make NASCAR great again.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)