CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Fans turn to sports for entertainment, a respite from the stress of the real world. They say they don’t want politics mixed in with sports, they just want to enjoy the show.
NASCAR, unfortunately, cannot sit on the sidelines and simply watch the cars go round.
The top racing series in the country lost the luxury of staying above the fray two years ago when Chairman Brian France said he didn’t want Confederate flags at racetracks anymore. France’s announcement was in response to a deadly church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and it infuriated a faction of fans who believe the sport with deep Southern roots goes hand-in-hand with the flag.
Last year, France openly endorsed Republican Donald Trump at a Georgia rally. On stage with him that day were several active NASCAR drivers, and although France was later adamant his presidential endorsement was personal, it was too late to alter the optics that NASCAR leadership is aligned with Trump.
Trump even said at that 2016 rally: “If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now. Nobody else can win. Nobody.”
Trump’s election has been sharply polarizing for the nation, and his decision to blame “both sides” for a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly prompted a number of CEOs to step back from the president.
France has said nothing as his family business rolls into its final stretch of the summer — races in Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia.
Instead, it was Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis, the sponsor of NASCAR’s third-tier national truck series, who said customers who support Trump’s comments regarding the rally should shop elsewhere. Hall of Fame driver Mark Martin responded on Twitter, claiming he was canceling an order for a $150,000 recreational vehicle; his fans were near unanimous in their support of Martin’s decision.
But on Monday, Martin backtracked. He posted on Twitter that he’d spoken to Lemonis and regretted his original tweet.
There were dozens of Confederate flags flying at the campgrounds last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Saturday night race was in part sponsored by the National Rifle Association. So like it or not, NASCAR and its alliances do cross into the political arena. Because of that, and the waters France has already entered, the sanctioning body doesn’t get a pass in a time of unrest.
On Sunday, NASCAR did address current events in a statement provided to outlets that requested one. Attributed to recently named NASCAR President Brent Dewar, it read: “NASCAR brings fans of all different backgrounds and points of view together to celebrate one thing they all have in common — a love for NASCAR. We are saddened by recent tragic events around the world and feel strongly there is no place for bigotry, racism, hatred or violence in our society.”
Three days earlier, popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been eloquent about the responsibility he feels to use his platform to speak out against such things.
“It’s sad and frustrating to see what happened,” he said of Charlottesville. “It’s really frustrating because we ought to be better than that. We ought to be smarter than that, than to be trying to tear each other apart. We ought to be working together, but it just seems like that is getting harder and harder to do and there is less and less of that.”
This is a delicate time in NASCAR, where drivers are losing their jobs because sponsorship dollars are decreasing. Chip Ganassi fields cars across numerous racing platforms and is searching for money just like everyone else. He is losing Target, a partner for nearly three decades, at the end of this season because the company is shifting its marketing focus to soccer.
Ganassi does not believe France’s endorsement of Trump or the stereotypes surrounding NASCAR have harmed his search for sponsorship.
“I didn’t take it as NASCAR aligning with anyone,” Ganassi said of France’s Trump endorsement. “Brian can do what he wants to do. I think people are smart enough to make their own decisions.”
That’s the case with First Data CEO Frank Bisignano, who on Monday teamed his technology company with Ganassi for a two-race sponsorship of Kyle Larson this year. Bisignano, who is also interested in sponsoring Larson in 2018 and has First Data as the title sponsor of the Martinsville, Virginia, race, talked about NASCAR being part of the American sports fabric and the opportunities created for his company by this partnership.
The New Jersey native also touched upon the Sept. 11 attacks and the troubling affect it had on him as a leader of company.
“NASCAR is winning. NASCAR is the great opportunity. Every brand comes under some degree attack,” said Bisignano. “Great leaders steer through that attack, and I think NASCAR has great leadership. And, I think it has an incredible fan base.”
France waded into this territory and took NASCAR with him. Because of that, NASCAR needs to be a leader at this critical time.