Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: How NASCAR Might Handle the 2024 U.S. Election?

Did You Notice? … By the time you read this column, the U.S. presidential nominees for 2024 will be all but assured.

NASCAR will run in conjunction with another national election this year, as the vote for president will come on Tuesday, Nov. 5, five days before the season finale at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 10. It’s near certain the election will be a 2020 rematch between two major candidates: Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump.

How does that intersect with NASCAR? Well, it’s virtually impossible these days to have a complete separation between sports and politics. From the national anthem controversies of the mid-2010s to the George Floyd protests in 2020, athletes make their opinions known more than ever to a country that’s become increasingly polarized. Modern technology brings their viewpoint into your living room, your laptop or your phone whether you’re asking for said opinion or not.

But here’s the thing: people turn to sports to escape from that type of stuff. It is entertainment after all, right? For the most part, fans are much more interested in what Driver A can do on the racetrack versus what he thinks about inflation, the border, Biden or Trump. There are elected officials and television news and thousands of would-be pundits for that stuff; just hop on TikTok and we’ll see you back here in an hour (or two, or three …).

Producing some sort of biased opinion on either side, whether it’s NASCAR or a vocal driver, risks alienating some portion of your fan base. Polarization has reached an all-time high, whether you look at marriages of mixed political party affiliations decreasing or people refusing to date someone who voted for a candidate they didn’t like. We’ve largely lost the ability to talk to each other in this country over a difference of opinion, a large can of worms that we don’t want to open here.

The question instead is how involved NASCAR will choose to be in the election this time around. A sport with southern roots had no qualms about supporting the region’s conservative, often racist politics during its early years. Back in 1972, Bill France Jr. once donated to and helped manage the campaign of white supremacist George Wallace some four years after the peak of his power as an independent candidate. The support came nearly a decade after the civil rights movement toppled Jim Crow laws in the region, bringing equality and desegregation into the South.

Thankfully, since then the sport has evolved tremendously but maintained its association with the conservative movement. In 1984, popular Republican Ronald Reagan became the first sitting president to attend a race and give the command to start engines; his appearance is famously paired with King Richard Petty‘s 200th NASCAR Cup Series win.

During the Brian France era, which ended in 2018, the sport continued its public history of supporting Republican presidential candidates. During Trump’s rise to the top of the ticket in February 2016, France came out and endorsed him with a roster of top drivers alongside at the podium in Georgia: the Elliotts (Chase and Bill), Ryan Newman and David Ragan. The sport was publicly a pro-Trump showcase that year. Even now, flags supporting the now-former president dot the landscape of the infield at every racetrack.

The support isn’t limited to just presidents; the NRA has famously sponsored races at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Religion is present in every pre-race invocation, the only major sport that has prayer indoctrinated into their weekly routine.

But during the Steve Phelps era, executives have attempted a shift toward more neutral ground. 2020 did begin with Donald Trump as the Daytona 500 grand marshal; he was the first President to give the command there since George W. Bush in 2004. The decision brought enormous attention to the sport, although momentum was blunted when heavy rains forced the race to be postponed after just 20 laps.

From there, though, NASCAR found itself on the opposite end of the spectrum politically in the midst of trying to race during COVID-19. The sport utilized a period of time with no fans attending events to institute a ban on the Confederate flag in June 2020.

“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events,” the sport explained then, “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”

Protests have ensued over its removal — a Confederate group flew the flag over a racetrack in a plane shortly after the ban — but the policy has been more largely accepted over time.

Weeks after the flag decision, in June 2020, a noose was discovered above Bubba Wallace’s pit stall at Talladega Superspeedway. While a FBI investigation ultimately found Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime, the sport stood together against hate in the midst of the George Floyd protests. Drivers spoke out against racism while everyone helped push Wallace’s No. 43 car to the grid in a united front.

The incident caused a public spat between Trump and Wallace, the former president claiming Wallace should apologize for a noose he neither planted nor discovered. The driver’s response and the resulting support from several peers was the most outspoken someone in the sport had been toward a Republican president.

In late 2020, a Cup car driven by Corey LaJoie was sponsored by the Trump re-election campaign through the Patriots of America PAC. While LaJoie wasn’t a front-running car at the time, the partnership tied TV in knots. It appeared at times coverage attempted to avoid the car to not show favoritism toward a particular party or candidate.

Since that election, the sport has dealt with the infamous ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ incident at Talladega that sparked a national movement framing criticism against current President Biden. When NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Brandon Brown won a race at Talladega in October 2021, former NBC reporter Kelli Stavast tried to ignore chants of “F*** Joe Biden” from the stands. As their voices flooded her mic on the frontstretch, she tried to drown them out by saying the crowd was saying, “Let’s go, Brandon,” instead.

Since then, millions of dollars in merchandise and a marketing campaign have blossomed, perhaps at Brown’s expense; he’s since exited the sport as a full-time driver. NASCAR has banned political sponsorships in the wake of the incident, granting only limited exceptions as they continue an internal push to put the focus on racing, not outside distractions.

In the past few years, NASCAR has been touting a more diverse fan base and driver pool. Their Drive for Diversity program was in the spotlight just this week after graduate Rajah Caruth earned his first Craftsman Truck Series victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That comes one week after the sport’s lone Mexican full-time driver, Daniel Suarez, pulled off his second career Cup victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

See also
Rajah Caruth's Nonstop Quest to Learn Is Finally Paying Off

New faces, new teams, a new chassis and new philosophies have given NASCAR newfound momentum. The Atlanta Cup race had a 5% boost in viewership compared to Auto Club Speedway last year, following positive buzz surrounding a rain-delayed Daytona 500. While the financial barrier to entry may remain high for ownership, in some ways the sport is more welcoming and open than it’s ever been. That’s a direct result of the Phelps era and decisions made to change how the sport operates.

Will the 2024 election challenge that? As we’ve seen with the LGB incident just two-plus years ago, there remains a particular and vocal lean toward one side of the fence with both fans and major players inside the garage area. Those opinions have nothing to do with racing, but stating a preference may scare off a number of new fans coming from the Netflix documentary, recent strong competition or those backing more diverse drivers like Wallace or Caruth.

Those new arrivals have a fresh impression of the sport. NASCAR executives have backed up their push to remain unbiased with tangible action. But will they be able to hold firm if Trump wants to use NASCAR as a bully pulpit like he did in 2020? Or if millions in Super PAC money in a sponsorship-starved sport arrives at the doorstep of Cup, Xfinity or Truck series teams struggling to survive? Or if major players in the sport, from drivers to team owners, want to openly give their opinion on the state of the country as the election draws closer?

There’s also the not-so-small matter of the election potentially hanging in the balance entering the championship finale race in Phoenix, Ariz. Remember, there were less than 10,000 fans at that track due to COVID-19 the last time we had a highly contested election. This time around, you’re looking at a sold-out crowd descending into the Phoenix region, a swing state that was at the epicenter of fraud allegations with heavy protests in the days following the vote.

See also
Only Yesterday: Jeff Gordon Reaches a Milestone in the Desert

What if there’s no clear winner as the race weekend revs up? What if Arizona is the state that might determine who’s president? And what will the reaction be from the side that loses, potentially posing a safety risk to fans and race teams?

It’s all tricky, murky and a challenge for a sport that has, in large part, successfully reset itself in the public eye. The key as the general election campaign heats up is whether that perception can hold.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • We’re only three races into the season but not one Cup driver has a top-10 finish in all three events. That’s a positive sign some parity might be returning to a series that saw the top teams get a step ahead with the Next Gen chassis in 2023.
  • Taking that point a step further, close friends Ryan Blaney and Wallace are the only two Cup drivers with two top-five finishes to start the year. And among the six with two top 10s? Noah Gragson, although Stewart-Haas Racing’s 35-point penalty for bad roof rail deflectors leaves him a distant 34th in the standings. There are definitely some surprises up and down the list despite Hendrick Motorsports winning two of the first three events.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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WJW Motorsports

Let’s drop the two old coots in identically prepared stock cars and settle it on-track.

wildcats2016

Wouldn’t it be nice if NASCAR could be a politics-free zone?

Echo

Nobody has 3 top tens. Could be because of all the wrecks and types of the first two races. Starting with Vegas let’s see how it goes now.

Bill B

If NASCAR is smart they will pretend it’s not an election year and ignore the whole thing. There is nothing to be gained by getting involved.

DoninAjax

If NA$CAR can find a way to make $$$$ they will do it.

Ivan

You support a seditionist traitor. I’m never watching or attending another race. EVER

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