Monday, February 16, 2015

Presidential Racing

Over the last half-dozen or so Presidential elections, pundits seem to focus on who'll get the "NASCAR dads" vote - as if all NASCAR fans are male and are fathers and vote the same way.

Fans aside, NASCAR's leadership and participants have often courted the resident of the White House - whoever it may be or whatever party he represents.

Richard Petty was among a large contingent of athletes who visited the White House in 1971 for a swanky dinner and a meeting with President Richard Nixon. The difference with the King vs. the other athletes, however, is he took his car with him.

Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
President Jimmy Carter didn't hob nob with the NASCAR contingent much, but his brother Billy was a guest of honor at the 1977 Daytona 500.

President Carter did, however, carry through on a campaign promise to stay connected to racing. About 25 drivers and 500 total guests went to the White House in September 1978. Included in the night's events was a private concert from Willie Nelson - one of a multiple number of trips the Red Headed Stranger made to the Big Beer Joint.

As it turned out though, the President couldn't meet with the guests. He was detained at Camp David as he had his little negotiation thing going on between Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel.

With Jimmy away, first lady Rosalynn Carter represented the White House in the photo-ops.

Source: Lakeland Ledger via Google News Archive
Perhaps the most famous POTUS visit with NASCAR was on July 4, 1984. President Ronald Reagan gave the command to start engines from aboard Air Force 1. His plane landed just as eventual race winner Petty passed by on the backstretch creating the opportunity for one of the most iconic racing photos.

The Gipper went to the press box to watch the remainder of the race and the epic finish between Petty and Cale Yarborough. Following the race, Reagan then then went to the garage area for a 4th of July picnic with the drivers and other guests.

Eight years later in 1992 - again on the 4th of July - King Richard made his final Daytona start. I was in the stands that Saturday morning as President George H.W. Bush visited the track and offered some pre-race comments about Petty and his career.

President George W. Bush was the guest of honor for the Daytona 500 in 2004. Again, look who was right in the thick of the photo action!

Two years later, Bush 43 visited Victory Junction Gang Camp, the camp for chronically ill children founded by the Petty family.

Interestingly, years before W. was elected the 43rd President, many fans were lobbying for The King to run for President.

More recently, Barack Obama welcomed 2013 Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team to the White House in June 2014.

And Darrell Waltrip offered the keynote address at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington earlier this month on February 5th.

In addition to NASCAR drivers meeting a President, some drivers shared a name with a President.

George Bush started five Grand National races in 1952 for car owner S.J. Lorenzo. He best finish was a seventh and averaged a 16th place finish in Lorenzo's Oldsmobiles.

Bill Clinton made six Grand National starts from 1961-1964. All of his races were in California with four of them at Riverside. Clinton is shown here in #25 in the 1963 Riverside 500.

Credit: Henry Ford Flickr Collection 
John Kennedy raced in eighteen GN / Winston Cup events from 1969-1979. Kennedy raced car number "0" in 10 of his 18 starts. The number was perhaps appropriate as it equaled the percent chance he had of winning. He did not finish in 12 of his 18 starts and averaged a 19th place finish in the 6 races he did complete.

Kennedy in his #0 Ford before the start of the 1977 CAM2 Motor Oil 400 at Michigan.

Credit: Gwadagone on Fotki
Kennedy in a #0 Chevy Monte Carlo at Michigan - Two of his six completed races were in both Michigan races in 1979.

Fred Thompson started two GN races, one in 1951 and other in 1963. Though Thompson's name matches only a short-lived Presidential candidate....

...his name also matches the actor's name who portrayed a President - Big John as the President of NASCAR in Days of Thunder.

Other 'presidential' drivers may be in NASCAR's record books. If so, I haven't found them yet. I feel pretty confident, however, that no one named Grover Cleveland, John Quincy Adams or Teddy Roosevelt ever hustled a car around North Wilkesboro, Langhorne or Bowman Gray.