INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Many a fan is quick to insist they do not like politics in their sports — no kneeling, no raised fists, no T-shirt messages. Just the game or event, please and thank you.
That has not been the case of late as the nation goes through a reckoning on race and racism following the death of George Floyd in police custody. In NASCAR, the colorful paint schemes on the stock cars themselves have taken a decidedly political turn in recent weeks — and will again this weekend.
Corey LaJoie's car will carry a scheme touting the re-election bid of President Donald Trump during Sunday's Brickyard 400. The Patriots of America PAC spent $350,000 for the political advertisement that will be seen by anyone who catches a glimpse of the No. 32 Ford on NBC.
Political ads are not unheard of in NASCAR, but the move still drew attention in part because Trump is a polarizing figure for many and because the series itself is wrestling with how to boost diversity.
“Let's just say there’s been a lot of Corey LaJoie stories this week,” said Tom Jensen, manager of curatorial affairs for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “Historically, I can tell you (NASCAR) sponsorship is a mixture of brand awareness, brand favorability and in some cases to move product directly.”
In February 2004, President George W. Bush attended the Daytona 500 while actively courting a swing-voter group his advisers dubbed “NASCAR dads.” President Ronald Reagan celebrated Richard Petty's final Cup victory at a post-race drivers picnic on July 4, 1984, and exactly eight years later President George H.W. Bush witnessed Petty's final Cup start. All came during re-election season and few were surprised when Trump attended the Daytona 500 in February.
This year's messaging, however, has taken some sharp turns, perhaps reflecting the divided nation.
Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the Cup Series, helped persuade NASCAR to ban Confederate flags from its events less than two months ago. He also ran Petty's famed No. 43 car in a Black Lives Matter paint scheme that did not have a sponsor. He also wore a T-shirt with the words “I can't breathe," the last words spoken by Floyd as he died with his neck pinned to the ground by the knee of a police officer.
Mike Harmon Racing recently added the phrase #BackTheBlue, a reference to supporting police officers, to one of his Xfinity Series cars after running the message Blue Lives Matter earlier this season.
On Saturday, both of Harmon's Xfinity cars will carry #StandForTheFlag and We Stand, a move that comes less than a month after NASCAR eliminated a rule that asked race teams to stand, hand over heart, during the national anthem.
Harmon said this week's theme is about patriotism and is not a critique of NASCAR, which must approve all paint schemes, or any other views. Repairedvehicles.com is the sponsor.
“It’s just our belief," Harmon said Friday. “I've met so many people who have been injured, that have lifetime injuries because they were fighting for our country, fighting for the flag and this is the least we can do for them and for our country."
LaJoie's red, white and blue car for Go FAS Racing will carry Trump 2020 in white lettering. The PAC also sponsored a Trump-themed Xfinity car earlier this year and appeared on LaJoie's car last weekend as an associate sponsor. Now, though, they will have a more prominent spot for the next nine races.
Critics have noted that Trump has called the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate.”
“These cars will get a lot of talk value beyond simply appearing on a car," said Jeff Richards, an advertising and public relations professor at Michigan State who was referring specifically to the cars driven by Wallace and LaJoie. “We also need to be aware that one or both of those probably will be subject to some negative remarks, too."
All teams survive on sponsorship money, a relationship strained badly by the pandemic and the shutdown. LaJoie has not commented publicly on the Trump paint scheme, though he may have hinted at it this week on his podcast: “My team’s doing some necessary things. I’m doing some necessary things to stay relative as a race car driver and provide for my family.”
Go FAS Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire is a Trump supporter who has seen the social media posts hoping his car crashes on the first lap of each race or that perhaps the garage will burn down. He noted the relationship between LaJoie and Wallace, who has been criticized by Confederate flag supporters and then watched the FBI investigate a garage door pulldown rope fashioned as a noose that was found in his garage at Talladega two weeks ago.
“You know, him and Bubba are great friends and I hope those two can get together with this and get everybody registered to vote," St. Hilaire said. “I will register them to vote with a Trump shirt on, but I just want to get them registered. We feel most of these people are going to be Trump supporters, but if they’re not, that’s OK. Just go vote."