“Gentlemen, start your engines,” President George W. Bush shouted from the infield of the Daytona International Speedway Sunday. In a black racing jacket and button-down blue Oxford, Bush looked every bit like the voter he had come to court: the white, culturally conservative “NASCAR dad.” Bush needs lots of NASCAR dads to win in November, and staging a photo op at the “Great American Race” was a masterstroke. But it’s not an original idea. In fact, Bush’s Daytona trip has a historical precedent: Richard Nixon’s December 1969 journey to to a football game in Fayetteville, Ark.
Nixon, like Bush, was taking fire for waging war on dubious grounds. After running in 1968 on a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, he had reduced troop strength but hadn’t quelled the massive antiwar protests in Washington. The first week of December 1969was particularly dicey. On Dec. 1, the first televised draft lottery selected more than 300,000 young men to report for military duty. Thousands of protesters threatened to swarm the White House and Capitol Hill. Facing more grim headlines, Nixon made for Arkansas on Dec. 6.
Nixon went to what sportswriters billed as college football’s “Game of the Century”: No.1 Texas, which had won 18 games in a row, versus No. 2 Arkansas, winners of 15straight. ABC Sports had pushed the contest to December to ensure it would air without competition. Political eminences in attendance included Reps. George H.W. Bush and Jim Wright, from Texas, and Sen. William Fulbright, from Arkansas. Billy Graham delivered the pre-game invocation.
Like Bush, Nixon saw the event as a way to sidestep the Washington press corps and evangelize directly to friendly constituents. With a national TV broadcast, Texas-Arkansas had wide appeal to the Southern voters Nixon needed to woo in 1972—the same voters, in part, he had courted with his “silent majority” speech a month earlier. In many ways, Sunday’s Daytona 500 had a similar audience, plus the added bonus of taking place in Florida, where Bush will need every vote he can scrounge in November.
On Sunday, Bush flew over the track in Air Force One before landing and mingling with drivers. In 1969, Nixon made a dramatic entrance by helicopter nine minutes after kickoff. Nixon, a mediocre gridder at Whittier College, had a lifelong passion for football. Bush seems to have discovered his interest in closed-wheel racing just in time for the Daytona. He explained to reporters, “I flew fighters when I was in the Guard, and I like speed.”
Both presidents benefited from the rare big game that actually lived up to its billing. Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat Tony Stewartby four car lengthsfor his first-ever Daytona 500 win. In 1969, with Texas trailing 14-8, Longhorn quarterback James Street heaved a 44-yard pass as the clock ran down. Texas scored two plays later and won 15-14. Nixon materialized in the locker room for a triumphant photo op. As Street tells it, one of the victorious Longhorns approached Nixon and said, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Nixon replied, “No, it was you who won the ballgame.” The player quipped, “No, no, thank you for my lottery number.”
Nixon narrowly escaped controversy in Fayetteville. According to Terry Frei’s book Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, an antiwar protest took place outside the stadium but went unglimpsed by ABC cameras. A group of black students threatened to rush the field if the Razorback band played its usual rendition of “Dixie.” The band didn’t play the song. No such rabble-rousing occurred at Daytona Sunday. As NASCAR chairman Brian France put it, “This is George Bush country here.” Bush better hope so.