NASCAR fans cheer Bush at Daytona 500

Race gives president chance to woo Fla. voters

February 16, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - President Bush looked at home. Wearing black slacks, a blue shirt and a Daytona racing jacket, the president jumped from his black Suburban and began a 20-minute tour of pit road just before the Daytona 500.

"It's great to get out of Washington," he said during an interview on the Motor Racing Network, which was broadcasting the race, shortly after giving the command for the 43 cars in the field to start their engines. "It's a beautiful day and there's an electricity in the air, and it's easy to see why."

About 200,000 fans roared their approval when Bush arrived and worked his way along pit road, stopping to chat with pole winner Greg Biffle, who drives the Army National Guard car.

He patted the shoulder of retired champion driver and noted Republican Richard Petty. He chatted with Teresa Earnhardt, the widow of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. And he stood at attention for the national anthem with Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who owns a NASCAR racing team.

In a pre-race interview with NBC, Bush referred to stock car racing "as a way of life for a lot of people." And when asked if he'd like to take a ride in one of the cars, he said: "Well, I'd like to, but I'm afraid the [Secret Service] agents wouldn't let me. I flew fighters when I was in the [National] Guard, and I like speed."

Bush flew over the 2.5-mile racetrack in Air Force One, enjoying the colorful view before arriving in a 20-car motorcade. And though the visit brought excitement to the start of the Nextel Cup season, it also brought disruption.

The president's visit caused delays of up to an hour or more for fans trying to get into the speedway. Metal detectors, airport-style screenings and bomb-sniffing dogs were being used.

"It's an unbelievable feeling to be here. NASCAR and NASCAR fans support the United States military, and we've known the [Bill] France family for a long time," Bush said, referring to the family that founded and has run NASCAR. "They care about their fans, a lot of whom are in the military, and run a good business."

As Bush surveyed the scene, he saw a sea of red, white and blue as NASCAR put on an elaborate Daytona Celebrates America pre-race show that included an array of stars and stripes, and a giant American flag.

The race provided an opportunity for Bush to woo tens of millions of NASCAR fans - the sport claims a fan base of 75 million - watching the televised event 8 1/2 months before the presidential election. The crowd in the stands was almost exclusively white and heavily male.

The phrase "NASCAR dads" has become political shorthand for voters who like Bush but who could be persuaded to vote Democratic if the issues and candidates were right. It was also a plum chance to make a 19th visit to Florida, the state that decided the 2000 election.

The president got a much warmer reception than former President Bill Clinton did when he visited a NASCAR race as a candidate in September 1992, when the question of his lack of Vietnam-era military service was dogging him.

At the Southern 500 race in Darlington, S.C., Clinton was booed and heckled by fans, many shouting "draft dodger."

Bush's appearance culminated his aggressive courtship of NASCAR fans, a large percentage of whom live in bedrock Bush country - the South and the Midwest.

The Bush White House has added NASCAR winners to the list of sports champions formally honored at the White House. In December, as Bush paid tribute to drivers inside the White House, seven NASCAR stock cars were parked on the South Lawn.

Underscoring the political stakes, the Republican National Committee set up camp at the speedway to register potential voters.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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