DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It wasn’t a campaign event, but this year’s Daytona 500 race had many of the trappings of a MAGA rally with spectators in red hats, waving American flags, and holding Trump signs inside and outside the Daytona International Speedway.
President Donald Trump’s reelection machine took full advantage of the millions of NASCAR eyeballs watching on race day by airing an ad on Fox and flying a bright red “KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” banner near the track. Fox carried the event live on television, and Fox News commentator and Trump stalwart Judge Jeanine Pirro, Donald Trump Jr. and girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle watched from a VIP section of the track.
Trump’s President’s Day weekend in Florida demonstrated how Trump plans to approach his 2020 campaign — showcasing the presidency to his MAGA base and raising money with high dollar donors across the country. Before heading to Daytona, Trump raised $10 million for his reelection and the Republican National Committee with a small private dinner of 40 of his wealthiest supporters. Then, on Sunday, flew to Daytona International Speedway where he was met by a largely friendly crowd of NASCAR enthusiasts.
“NASCAR fans are patriots who support the President in huge numbers, so we definitely wanted to communicate directly with them about Keeping America Great during the Great American Race,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement.
Both Trump and the campaign are keenly aware of the importance of keeping the support of both NASCAR fans and Florida voters. The president narrowly won his recently declared home state in 2016, and he maintains a tenuous 49 percent approval rating here. And NASCAR fans, which number in the millions, historically lean slightly conservative in polls.
Before Trump even stepped foot inside the massive racetrack, he grabbed the attention of the sold-out stadium with an Air Force One fly-by.
“NASCAR fans never forget that no matter who wins the race, what matters most is God, family and country,” Trump said in remarks to fans before the race, reprising a line he has used before at the White House. “Tires will screech, rubber will burn, fans will scream, and the great American race will begin...[drivers will] make their play for pure American glory.”
Then he delivered one of the most famous lines in sports, “Drivers, start your engines!” to roaring motors and cheers from the crowd, kicking off the Super Bowl of stock-car racing with a dramatic display of patriotic pomp.
Trump also showed off his own fancy piece of machinery — the presidential limousine known as “the Beast,” with a lap on Daytona’s track. While it clocked in at a much slower speed than the other high performing vehicles that later followed, the circuit was still met with roaring applause by the stadium.
Trump was courted by Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), who represents the area in Congress, to be the first sitting president to serve as Grand Marshal for the Daytona 500 and the 62nd running of “The Great American Race” — a special honor with the famed responsibility of giving the “start your engines” command.
In a phone call with the president, Waltz said he told Trump that the event’s attendance of over 101,500 cheering fans would be more than double that of the NCAA national championship game he attended in January. (Waltz overstated the difference a bit as attendance at the NCAA title game was actually over 75,000.) Over 9 million viewers tuned in to watch the Daytona 500 on television in 2019.
“I told him how all-American it is, and patriotic,” Waltz told POLITICO at Daytona. He said the president was excited about the prospect of taking a lap with the Beast.
“We were talking about taking the limo on a lap around the track and he said that would be amazing,” Waltz said. “I told him you’re not going to see any kneeling here.”
Recent grand marshals for the race have included the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Hollywood stars like Owen Wilson, Gerard Butler, and Vince Vaughn.
The president, who calls himself a fan of the sport, has wooed NASCAR owners and drivers as president. During his 2016 presidential run, Trump was endorsed by former NASCAR CEO Robert France, he awarded Roger Penske the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019 and hosted 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Joey Logano at the White House.
“NASCAR is not only a thrilling display of skill and power, but a celebration of the American spirit,” Trump said during Logano’s 2018 visit. “No matter who wins the race, you never forget what matters most: God, family, and country.”
Ronald Reagan was the first sitting president to attend a Daytona International Speedway race in 1984, during Richard Petty’s 200th Cup Series win at the Firecracker 400. George H.W. Bush attended the Pepsi 400 in 1992, and George W. Bush, like Trump, had a dramatic arrival at the Daytona 500 in 2004 with an Air Force One fly-by and lap around the track in his motorcade. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race that year.
“Daytona International Speedway has been privileged to have hosted several sitting Presidents of the United States over our history,” track president Chip Wile said in a statement. “We’re honored that the President of the United States has chosen to experience the pageantry and excitement of ‘The Great American Race’ by attending Sunday’s 62nd annual Daytona 500.”
According to a NASCAR spokesperson, it’s the fifth consecutive sold-out year of the race.
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.