Commentary

Ain't NASCAR's first presidential rodeo

Updated: August 20, 2009, 1:06 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Notoriously right-wing NASCAR's visit to a liberal Democratic president at the White House on Wednesday (NASCAR Now on ESPN2, 4:30 p.m. ET) is not nearly as groundbreaking as you may think.

I know, I know: This is the NASCAR of warplane flyovers and fervent invocations at every race, troops in attendance by the battalion, tacit instructions given at drivers' meetings on which way to vote (wink-wink, with the right eye) … the NASCAR that quickly proved absurd the New York Times' assertion in 2000 that "NASCAR dads" were in play politically.

Truth is, NASCAR's deepest roots with the American presidency run back to one Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who was as passionate a NASCAR fan as he was a liberal Democrat. He and Cale Yarborough were so tight, their friendship became a skit on "Saturday Night Live."

The living legend Junior Johnson remains a staunch Democrat today, having endorsed candidate Barack Obama last summer, even though it was a Republican, Ronald Reagan, who'd granted Johnson a presidential pardon for moonshining.

Today's visit with President Obama will be but a quickie, a virtual pit stop, much like the in-and-out trips to see George W. Bush -- who, if you ask me, never looked comfortable with the NASCAR folk, either at the White House or the Daytona 500.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Bush
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesPresident George W. Bush mixed with NASCAR a time or two, but it never seemed all that natural.

None of these have been anything like the serious, in-depth social mixing during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Snapshot: This will later be described as the wildest invasion of the White House by yahoos since Andrew Jackson's backwoods cronies rode their horses inside (droppings and all), spilled moonshine on the floors and spat tobacco juice on the walls. Willie Nelson is playing, Rosalynn Carter is clogging with her shoes off, and First Brother Billy Carter is the man of the hour, getting his picture taken with every guest and a "Billy Beer" in his hand.

But the president is nowhere to be found. This is in 1978.

With the NASCAR crowd growing a little restless, Rosalynn finally speaks into a microphone, apologizing that Jimmy won't be able to be here tonight. He's out at Camp David with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, the prime ministers of Israel and Egypt.

Lee Petty is standing in the East Room, sloshing red wine on the hardwood floor and grumbling.

"He broke his promise," the Petty patriarch growls to me. "He said he was gonna be here to greet us."

"But Papa," I say. "He's out there trying to finish up the biggest Mideast peace agreement in history."

This will go down in history as the Camp David Accords, and just a few nights later the two leaders will famously embrace before the eyes of the world -- not six feet from where Lee Petty and I are standing.

But Papa Lee isn't buying any such excuse for standing us up, grousing that Arabs and Israelis have been "fightin' since way back yonder in the Bible, and they gonna be fightin' long after we're gone."

Willie and Billy and the wine and beer get the crowd happy again, Willie debuting songs from his new album, "Stardust."

But Jimmy Carter didn't show, and the Petty clan never forgave him.

Snapshot: Even candidate Carter causes a fuss in 1976, when his buddy Yarborough, a local politician and solid Democrat, gets the nominee an invitation to the Southern 500 at Darlington.

Strom Thurmond, the senior senator from South Carolina, phones track president Barney Wallace and says he'll have none of this Democrat domination of the state's biggest sports event. Incumbent President Gerald Ford can't make it, so Thurmond gets an invitation for then-vice presidential candidate Bob Dole.

It was the first experience for the NASCAR press corps at getting Secret Service clearance, which would serve us well in the several years to come.

With Carter, Thurmond and Dole all on the premises, I honestly can't remember which one got to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines."

I do remember that iconic track announcer Ray Melton, outraged that any politician would usurp his ceremonial right to command the start, boomed with his charcoal-smoke voice out over the public-address system, even after the cars rumbled to life and rolled down the pit road, "Everyone here at the famed Dahlin'ton Raceway knows that sayin' Gentlemen, staht yo engines is my job. So ah'm gonna say it to make it official: Gentlemen, staht yo' en-juns!"

Snapshot: It is the Fourth of July, 1984, when the Republican Pettys finally get their day. From aboard Air Force One, bound southward for Daytona Beach, President Ronald Reagan gives the command to start engines.

[+] EnlargeRonald Reagan & Richard Petty
AP Photo/Ira SchwarzPresident Ronald Reagan watched Richard Petty win his 200th -- and final -- race, broke bread with some fried chicken and put his re-election campaign in high gear all in one fell swoop on a hot July 4, 1984.

With the race under way, the enormous plane runs parallel with the cars roaring down the backstretch as it touches down on the main runway of Daytona Beach airport, just behind the speedway.

Richard Petty just happens to get his 200th win on the Fourth of July with the President of the United States looking on -- and not that NASCAR's ruling France family has any particular political leanings, but they happen to have planned a huge rally in the infield for Reagan to kick off his campaign for re-election.

Upstart car owner Richard Childress and I get ourselves a front-row position in front of the big stage, with enough beer to last the whole show, and here comes Tammy Wynette belting out "Stand by Your Man." Halfway through the song she walks over and grabs Reagan by the hand, brings him center stage, and really lets loose -- "Stand by … yo' ma-a-a-n!" And the crowd goes wild.

And I can't help noticing that either Ronald Reagan is blushing something fierce, or his cheeks have been painted red with about a pound of rouge.

Looking through those snapshots of when NASCAR really was tight with the presidency -- rather than stiffly joined for political showmanship -- I see that NASCAR just rolled with the politics in those days, hanging out comfortably with whoever was in the White House.

Not until 1992, at Darlington, when Richard Petty blatantly snubbed candidate Bill Clinton, did the clear rift appear between NASCAR and Democrats.

Petty told me he wouldn't even get near Clinton for fear a picture might be taken of them, "and people might get the wrong idea. I just don't agree with the cat's politics."

Since then, it's been pretty cold, solid, monolithic to the right.

But if you look deep enough into NASCAR's hierarchy today, you'll find that Marcus Jadotte, vice president of public affairs, was deputy director of the John Kerry presidential campaign. And that Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's No. 2 public relations specialist and heir-apparent to No. 1, came from the PR agency of Jody Powell, Carter's old press secretary.

So, come to think of it, maybe this pit stop in Washington on Wednesday could be groundbreaking after all. Should President Obama win over NASCAR, perhaps NASCAR dads and the American right would follow a little, and loosen up and warm up. And that, profoundly, would be change we can believe in.

Otherwise it'll be just another uncomfortable photo op for both sides, as it was the past eight years.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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