Published February 16, 2004
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – President Bush throttled up his re-election campaign Sunday by donning a racing jacket and opening the Daytona 500 (search), NASCAR's most prestigious event and one that draws a prized voter profile.
"Gentlemen, start your engines!" Bush said, squinting up from pit road to the grandstands, where some 180,000 fans roared. They were promptly drowned out by the scream of stock car engines roaring to life.
Bush seemed to relish a chance to see what he called "one of America's great sporting spectacles."
The race provided an irresistible opportunity for Bush to woo tens of millions of NASCAR (search) fans -- the sport claims a fan base of 75 million -- watching the televised event 8 months before the 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 (search), the state that decided the 2000 election.
His motorcade took a slow half-lap around the flat shoulder of the track, whose banks rise so steeply that a stopped car would probably roll end-over-end down to the bottom.
With his wife, Laura, trailing him, Bush walked the pit, mingling with drivers, shaking hands with fans. He peered into car No. 16, sponsored by the National Guard, and if the car reminded him of the tempest swirling around his own service in the Texas Air National Guard, he didn't show it.
Bush referred to that history in an interview with NBC just before the race.
"I flew fighters when I was in the Guard, and I like speed," he said. "It would've been fun to drive up on these banks. ... I'd like to, but I'm afraid the agents wouldn't let me."
The president got a much warmer reception than 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 Clinton.
At the Southern 500 race in Darlington, S.C., Clinton was booed and heckled by fans, many shouting "draft dodger!" at him.
As Bush strode through pit road, he received rock-star treatment. An extravaganza unfolded around him.
A man with a rocket strapped to his back sailed into the speedway, followed, a short time later, by a bald eagle that landed on its trainer's arm. Fireworks erupted, cheerleaders danced, Leann Rimes sang "R-O-C-K in the USA."
Bush bumped into actor Ben Affleck, getting ready to drive the pace car. The president lingered with NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
"If you've never been to a Daytona 500, it's hard for me to describe what it's like to be down here with the drivers and to see the huge crowd and to feel the excitement for one of America's great sporting spectacles," Bush said.
The first couple watched the race from a suite, protected from the eardrum-shattering blast of noise, the gust of wind and the trail of flying debris that washed over the grandstands each time the 43 cars sped past. The cars reach speeds of up to 200 mph.
"This is more than an event; it's a way of life for a lot of people, and you can feel excitement when you're here," Bush said.
Bush's appearance culminated his aggressive courtship of NASCAR fans.
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.
Bush sought to maximize his exposure to racing fans during his visit. Air Force One circled low over the speedway so the president could get a look -- and to give racing fans a dramatic look at a symbol of the presidency.
He spent an unusually long time at the race -- more than 2 hours, compared to the 55 minutes he planned at a Monday event on the economy across Florida in Tampa. Bush does not submit to news media interviews often, but he did two Sunday with networks that reach millions of race fans -- NBC, which aired the race, and with the Motor Racing Network.
Afterward, he called race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. to congratulate him.
Late Sunday night, Bush and the first lady had dinner in Tampa with former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and his wife, Mary Jane. They are among Bush's "rangers" -- fund-raising volunteers who collected at least $200,000 for the president's re-election campaign.