Sports and politics have often not mixed well, but third generation NASCAR owner/operator Brian France has decided to throw caution to the wind.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, he became the first NASCAR chief executive to publicly endorse a political candidate at a rally for Donald Trump in Valdosta, Ga.
Perhaps the NASCAR CEO is trying to be Trump-esque by not bowing to political correctness. As the CEO of America's largest motor racing sanctioning body, he runs the risk of alienating sponsors and some fans by personally endorsing Trump. While it's not an endorsement by NASCAR itself, the perception is that France speaks on behalf of the sanctioning body he owns.
Politics is about splitting a vote and is anathema to sports, which bring people together in the appreciation of competition that confirms what we all have in common. In that light, by choosing sides so publicly France has dropped below the yellow line in Daytona 500 terms.
As a Duke graduate looking forward to Saturday's basketball game against North Carolina, for instance, I can understand the Tar Heels' fan that says in an election between Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Taliban, he'd be inclined to vote for the Taliban.
Now that's funny. And, if you can't beat Krzyzewski, vote against him. But that's strictly a matter of opinion and not a matter of voting on how our resources as a nation are applied.
Until this week, tracks owned by the France family have hosted politicians in ceremonial roles, such as Grand Marshal, and politicians have spoken prior to races. But NASCAR and its executives have steered clear of direct involvement since 1976, when the sanctioning body itself endorsed Gerald Ford for president.
Beyond the jettisoning of political correctness and the anticipated criticism of at least one major sponsor, France may be patterning himself after Trump from a political standpoint. Just as Trump talks of his personal friendships with members of minority groups but declines to condemn an endorsement by the KKK, France has been on the record against Confederate flags flying in the infield at tracks hosting NASCAR races, saying the flags were personally objectionable to him. Yet, he's sending an alternate message to the majority of NASCAR fans, who are predominantly middle class white conservatives, by endorsing Trump.
One of the appeals of Trump, who swept all the southern states except Texas and won in Massachusetts on Super Tuesday, is bigotry. That's according to more than a few veteran political columnists. Even if that conclusion is debatable, how can it possibly be good for an organization hosting major sporting events to endorse a candidate carrying this kind of divisive perception?
France seems to be saying that NASCAR's oft-touted Drive to Diversity is not going to prevent his sanctioning body from supporting the majority of his current constituency.
For the short term, France needs to shore up the appeal of NASCAR. That results, in part, from the recent change to a charter system that guarantees the owners of 36 cars the right to race all season without having to qualify on speed. The charter system could be seen as the socialist approach to racing, except that the guarantees work in favor of the richest team owners. In either case, it's not a populist approach. One look at all its heroes tells you that NASCAR is, above all, a populist sport.
If TV ratings, fan response and the ticket sales in Atlanta, scene of round 2 of this year's Sprint Cup, are any indication, then the response to the charter system has been less than favorable. An outstanding race in Atlanta on a sunny day left a lot of grandstand seats empty and drew a 3.7 rating, one of the lowest on the FOX network in 15 seasons.
The charter system is part of France's move to try to get all stakeholders in the sport -- track owners, manufacturers, TV networks, sponsors and teams - into long-term agreements in order for those same stakeholders to invest in the health of the sport. He now seems to be recruiting the core white middle class constituency, many of whom have been alienated by the push for diversity and the charter system, to also believe in the long term future of NASCAR.
In other words, now that France has all the major stakeholders committed for the long haul, he feels free to exercise his own political views without fear of repercussions within the ranks of the sport he runs. Marcus Lemons, the CEO of truck series sponsor Camping World who hails from an immigrant family, was critical of the endorsement. But his company is committed to a long-term sponsor contract. In other words, France is saying I'm in charge, make no mistake. Motor racing has never been about pluralistic politics, so that element of the current tactic by France is at least consistent, although not admirable.
As for diversity, NASCAR has been consistent in seeking future growth by trying to gain fans from all backgrounds, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics. In that respect, France can have it both ways just like candidate Trump. The presidential candidate evidently feels immune from the charges of bigotry while the perception helps gain the votes of those who feel disenfranchised by America's longstanding push for diversity.
There is the risk that France's endorsement of Trump gains no favor within the ranks of NASCAR's core fans and alienates many others. It's a little bit like the open question of whether Trump can win a general election in the fall should he win the Republican Party nomination.
What would France's predecessors say? His grandfather Bill France Sr. might well have advised him to avoid politics. After he handed the business over to Bill France Jr., "Big Bill" got involved in Florida politics and was a washout, in no small part because after a lifetime of running a sanctioning body he had little feel for pluralistic politics. It was France Sr. who had NASCAR endorse Gerald Ford.
Bill France Jr. was not in favor of trying to mix NASCAR and politics. He once got in a dispute with "Big Bill" over a press release that acknowledged his father had undergone prostate surgery, according to a profile on the NASCAR founder by Brock Yates in Sports Illustrated.
"That's the stupidest thing NASCAR has ever done!" France Sr. shouted at his son. Bill France Jr. replied the stupidest thing NASCAR ever did was endorse Ford prior to the 1976 presidential election against Jimmy Carter.