President Donald Trump's campaign seized center stage at the Daytona 500 as he looks to lock down support from his base in the aftermath of the impeachment trial.
Became just the second sitting president to attend "Great American Race," Trump served as grand marshal for the race and gave the command for drivers to start their engines. The United States Air Force Thunderbirds performed a second flyover after Trump's command.
He also took a parade lap around the 2½-mile speedway in his limousine, leading the 40-car field before the green flag. The presidential motorcade remained on the apron in the corners instead of taking to the high-banked turns.
Moments earlier, he said during a Fox interview that while as president, he was not allowed to drive his own car, "I’m going to hop into one of these cars and I'm going to get into this race if possible. I love the idea."
Asked what it was about NASCAR that he most enjoyed, the president said, "I think it’s really the bravery of these people. ... it takes great courage."
Thousands cheered and a band played patriotic music when Air Force One flew over the famed track, a flyover that was simultaneously shown on big screens. Trump's presence energized fans and caused big headaches because of logistical issues at entrance points. The superspeedway-sized lines spurred Stenhouse to perk up fans who helped sell out the Daytona 500 for the fifth straight year.
Trump, with first lady Melania Trump by his side, addressed the crowd before the race and called the Daytona 500 "a legendary display of roaring engines, soaring spirits and the American skill, speed and power that we've been hearing about for so many years."
"For 500 heart-pounding miles, these fierce competitors will chase the checkered flag, fight for the Harley J. Earl trophy and make their play for pure American glory," Trump said. "That's what it is, pure American glory."
He ended his remarks to chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A," and to his 2016 campaign tune, "You can't always get what you want."
Daytona fans were largely enthusiastic over Trump's cameo, wearing T-shirts, hats and some fans draped themselves in Trump 2020 banners that flowed like capes as they strolled the garage before the race.
Trump followed in the footsteps of President George W. Bush, who made a similar visit in 2004 while seeking re-election. The president's campaign will air an ad during TV coverage of the race, and fly a Trump banner above it – courting NASCAR fans and locals in Florida, a state Trump cannot afford to lose this year.
"NASCAR fans are patriots who support the president in huge numbers," Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said.
Trump has gravitated increasingly toward friendly sports crowds – including at college football games, mixed martial arts bouts and now NASCAR – after facing boos at a Washington Nationals-Houston Astros World Series game in October, a few miles from the White House.
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