Just as his grandfather did 44 years ago, NASCAR CEO Brian France is trying to deliver the South to the presidential candidate who’s become the favorite among white, working-class voters.
On Monday, France threw his support behind Republican Donald Trump on the eve of Super Tuesday, when 13 states held primaries, including seven Southern states. His grandfather, “Big Bill” France Sr., helped deliver the 1972 Florida Democratic primary to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who rose to prominence for his segregationist views.
The younger France’s endorsement of Trump, who one day prior wouldn’t disavow the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists groups on national television, comes at a time when NASCAR continues to espouse its efforts to increase diversity among its drivers, almost all of whom are white males, and its mostly white audience.
France’s endorsement came Monday night at Georgia’s Valdosta State University where France was joined on stage by Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott and current drivers Chase Elliott (Bill’s son), Ryan Newman and David Ragan, all of whom also endorsed Trump.
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“If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now,” Trump said at the rally. “Nobody (else) can win. Nobody.”
NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said in an email that France’s decision to endorse Trump is a “personal, private decision by Brian,” who has supported Republican presidential candidates in the past.
France’s endorsement came after Trump, on CNN Sunday, said he did not know who former KKK grand wizard David Duke is despite Duke’s endorsement of Trump. Asked three times to disavow Duke and other white supremacist groups, Trump declined. Later in the day, off air, he did disavow Duke and said he was having trouble understanding the questions because of his earpiece.
And France’s endorsement came shortly after Trump’s organization kicked out 30 black Valdosta State students who were standing silently atop the bleachers at the rally – before the rally even started, the students told USA Today.
“We didn’t plan to do anything,” Tahjila Davis, a 19-year-old mass media major, told USA Today. “They said, ‘This is Trump’s property; it’s a private event.’ But I paid my tuition to be here.”
The Valdosta police chief told USA Today the students were asked to leave by members of Trump’s detail and that Trump had that right since he rented out the complex.
As a presidential candidate, Trump has supported a ban on Muslims coming into the United States. He has grouped Mexican immigrants in with criminals and rapists. Using broken English, Trump mocked Asian business leaders saying, “We want deal!” A Washington Post poll in February found Trump to be the least-liked of all candidates among black voters.
Wallace similarly espoused exclusionary views, exploiting white backlash against busing – probably the most incendiary racial issue of the early 1970s.
Wallace for president
“Big Bill” France founded NASCAR in 1948, and in 1959, he made the race in Daytona Beach, Fla., the sport’s biggest event.
In the late ’60s, France wanted to get a track in Alabama. He became close with Gov. Wallace, and NASCAR broke ground on what now is known as Talladega Superspeedway, one of the crown-jewel tracks in the sport.
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This was going on amid the civil rights movement. It was Wallace who said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inaugural address in 1963. And later that year he stood in front of doors at the University of Alabama attempting to block admission of black students.
Wallace ran a failed independent campaign for president in 1968. In 1970, he ran for re-election as Alabama’s governor and published campaign literature that suggested a vote for his opponent would help black voters “elect and control the Governor’s office.”
By 1972, Wallace had backed off some of his more staunch segregationist views and taken up as his signature platform opposition to busing to promote integrated public schools.
With his connections in Daytona Beach and Florida, France helped deliver the state (and every one of its counties) to Wallace in the 1972 Democratic primary, according to multiple reports in the years since. Wallace would be shot and paralyzed that year, effectively ending his campaign.
The elder France’s endorsement also came at a time when there was only one black driver on NASCAR’s top circuit. Wendell Scott, who was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year, repeatedly was turned away at the Darlington (S.C.) track, routinely faced insults by fans and drivers and, in the only race he won, was denied Victory Lane and announced as the winner hours later after a “scoring error.” There have been only two black drivers in NASCAR’s top series since Scott.
A 1995 article in the Dallas Morning News reported there was a picture collage of France Sr. with Wallace at Wallace’s Center for the Study of Southern Politics.
‘He wins with his family’
Four decades after his grandfather’s endorsement of Wallace, Brian France stood in front of a crowd of nearly 7,500 people Monday and explained why he’s voting for Trump.
“I’ve known Donald for over 20 years,” France said at the Georgia rally. “I’m going to tell you one thing about him: You know about his winning in business and success. I’m here to tell you he wins with his family. … Any of his children, you’d be proud to have them as part of your family.
“That’s how I judge a winner, how somebody manages their family, raises their family.”
Trump has been divorced twice and remarried a third time. Trump has made a point on TV and subsequent interviews of how attractive his daughter, Ivanka, is and has joked that he would date her if he weren’t happily married and her father.
Politics and NASCAR have intersected over the years. In 1992, Southern Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Dan Quayle went to Darlington to get votes. Richard Petty, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and the winningest driver on the top circuit, ran for North Carolina secretary of state in 1996 as a Republican and lost to Democrat Elaine Marshall.
And in 2004, Republican George W. Bush, seeking re-election and in need of a Florida victory after the 2000 win, was named the grand marshal of the Daytona 500, where France said “this is George Bush country here.” France contributed $11,500 to Republican Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign, and he donated $5,000 to Republican Mitt Romey’s 2012 presidential campaign along with hosting a fundraiser for Romney.
In the 2011 season finale in Miami, first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden were booed by the crowd as they told the drivers to start their engines.
None of the other commissioners of the top U.S. sports leagues has publicly endorsed a candidate in 2016 yet.
Trump’s campaign’s signature platform is immigration, and Trump repeatedly has said that when he’s president, he will have Mexico build a wall so its people cannot illegally come to America.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said last year when announcing his intent to run. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems … they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
NASCAR has been trying to extend its reach into Mexico for more than a decade. NASCAR Mexico was founded in 2004, and the company has an international office in Mexico City.
One month after Trump’s comments on Mexico, NASCAR pulled a year-end banquet for its two lower series from Trump National Doral Miami. Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World (the title sponsor of NASCAR’s Truck series), had said neither he nor any of his employees would attend the banquet if it were at Trump’s resort.
Monday, Lemonis was critical of France’s endorsement.
“There is no place for politics/any political endorsements in any business,” Lemonis tweeted from his verified account Monday after France’s endorsement. “Your customers and employees should have their own mind. #period.”
In February’s Daytona 500, NASCAR had no black drivers, one female (Danica Patrick), one Japanese-American driver (Kyle Larson) and one Cuban-American driver (Aric Almirola) compete in the race. In its next tier of racing, NASCAR has Bubba Wallace Jr., who’s half-black and half-white, and Mexican Daniel Suarez competing in the Xfinity Series.
Its once-floundering Drive for Diversity program has found new life in recent years with the help of millionaire Max Siegel, who is black. Still, though, there are only two drivers (Almirola and Larson) who have made it to the top series of NASCAR from the diversity program.
NASCAR faced a crisis last year when the shootings in Charleston spurred a debate about the Confederate battle flag. France and NASCAR dissociated themselves from the flag but said they could not tell privately owned tracks what to do when its customers came into the stands or infield with the flag. They offered to exchange Confederate battle flags with free U.S. flags, but several reports have indicated that service rarely was used.
The flag continues to fly at tracks across the South. Just as NASCAR left the flag decision up to individual tracks, the company is allowing its chief executive to make his own endorsement.
A NASCAR spokesman did not return an email seeking further comment.
France and Trump released a statement after the rally touting France’s support for the presidential candidate.
“Mr. Trump is changing American politics forever and his leadership and strength are desperately needed,” France said in a statement. “He has had an incredible career and achieved tremendous success.
“This is what we need for our country.”
Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.