Daytona 500’s appeal to Trump: ‘Guaranteed good visuals’

Mark Harper
Walton Sun

DAYTONA BEACH — Donald Trump hasn’t been to the Daytona 500 since his presidency started in 2017, but he’s no stranger to the city and the Great American Race.

Trump held a rally for 8,000 supporters at the Ocean Center on Aug. 3, 2016. Trump at least attended the Daytona 500 in 1998-2001, news accounts show. And Trump had been to Daytona Beach on several occasions before that.

Trump’s history with NASCAR extends beyond visits to Daytona International Speedway — including an endorsement by former Chairman Brian France and several drivers, and the on-again, off-again attempts to be part of a deal that would have brought a racing superspeedway to the New York-New Jersey area more than a decade ago.

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Even while that failed, Trump is likely to receive a warm welcome at the 500, where a crowd that likely leans in his favor figures to — at least temporarily — divert attention away from his recent impeachment and involvement in urging the Department of Justice to lighten a sentencing recommendation against his longtime political ally and Florida operative Roger Stone.

Early arrivals at the Speedway’s infield Wednesday suggested strong pro-Trump support awaits him.

“This is going to be a big Trump rally with a race,” said Johnny Leggott, a fan of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano from Louisiana attending his fourth Daytona 500.

While it’s unlikely the president will say more than a few words and wave to the crowd, those few seconds will be valuable for a White House trying to transcend a bitter partisan divide.

The Daytona 500 will be a sea of patriotic colors, a big crowd and a feel-good environment. Presidential stagecraft is critical, particularly in a re-election campaign year.

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“It’s a fail-safe environment for him,” said Steven Jacques, who served as a communications director for President Clinton’s Department of State and, later, in roles as a lead advance coordinating presidential events for President Obama. “He’s guaranteed good visuals, guaranteed a good crowd reaction. There’s very little risk of anything negative happening in such a controlled environment.”

Former Speedway President John Graham shook hands with Trump and his date, future wife and first lady Melania Knavs, early in their courtship on Race Day 2000.

“His motivation for coming to the Daytona 500 that year, I think, was that he was looking at the possibility of running for president for the Reform Party,” Graham said. “He may have had another motivation. It’s a great event to go to see.”

Trump had been to the 1998 and 1999 races, and made it to a fourth consecutive Daytona 500 in 2001.

He also had been pitching a string of proposals that would have gotten him involved in NASCAR, including a Trump Motor Speedway as part of a hotel-restaurant-shopping complex in Bridgeport, Conn.

That idea sputtered, but he returned with new dreams, the most prominent of which was a $400 million Trump Super Speedway in New Jersey, New York or Connecticut with seating for 300,000 — nearly triple the size of Daytona’s seating capacity.

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Eventually, International Speedway Corp. settled on pursuing a track on Staten Island, New York. A Los Angeles Times report from 2004 stated Trump was involved in a campaign to build support for the track in New York. Trump spoke at a rally and parade on Madison Avenue of race cars.

But then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, took air out of the tires, questioning whether a racetrack was right for Staten Island, according to multiple media reports. Bloomberg is among the field of Democrats seeking to defeat Trump in November.

Even before his run of Daytona 500 visits, Trump had come to Daytona Beach on occasion to visit his friend, Ron Rice, former CEO of Hawaiian Tropic suntan products. Rice would throw star-studded parties at his Ormond Beach beachfront mansion, and the two would meet at Hawaiian Tropic pageants all over the world.

Rice — who now owns a different suntan lotion brand, Havana Sun — said he introduced Trump to one 1985 Miss Hawaiian Tropic contestant, Marla Maples, who later became Trump’s second wife.

“His wheels are always turning. ... Probably one of the most interesting people I’ve met through business,” Rice said. “He’ll see something he likes — while he was serving as a VIP judge at my pageants ... he got the idea, ’I can do this.’ ”

Trump bought the floundering Miss Universe pageant and turned it around. “He did an amazing job with them,” Rice said.

Trump’s business career had its share of both success and failures, and it was aided by his father’s wealth more than he let on, but many NASCAR fans view him in the light of his portrayal on the reality-show “The Apprentice.”

At the Speedway’s infield, fans showed their support for the president by flying “Trump 2020”and “Keep America Great” flags on their campers. One race fan even displayed a cardboard cutout of Trump on the front of an RV.

Canadian visitors Dave and Sandra Mckellar, who are attending their third Daytona 500, hope they will have a chance to see Trump.

"You need a president who is good in business," Dave Mckellar said, comparing Trump to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a former drama teacher.

Sunday will be the first presidential visit to the Daytona International Speedway since George W. Bush attended in 2004. Each of the four presidential visits will have been made by Republicans during their re-election campaign years. George H.W. Bush attended in 1992 and Ronald Reagan visited in 1984.

“The Daytona 500 is one of the greatest events in sports and the prestigious season-opening event to the NASCAR Cup Series,” said Speedway President Chip Wile. “We’re honored that the president of the United States has chosen to experience the pageantry and excitement of The Great American Race.”

Graham, the former Speewday president, said Trump’s visit will be very good for both the president and the event.

“The president will get the exposure of what year in and year out is the highest-rated race on television. ... It’s an extremely positive setting and race fans tend to be very patriotic,” he said.

Advertisers are attracted to the Daytona 500 because the brand loyalty of race fans is “extremely high,“ Graham said.

And for the Speedway, attracting dignitaries and celebrities “adds to the fan enjoyment of the event,” Graham said.

Graham said he will be surprised if Trump gives a speech or the event takes the shape of a political rally.

“Both genuinely and as a pragmatic matter, I don’t think he would want to impose himself in place of the race,” Graham said. “He would like to be associated with it and be viewed alongside it.”

— News-Journal Staff Writer Nikki Ross contributed to this story.

This story originally published to, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.