NASCAR and Donald Trump: Why the presidential candidate is attending Coca-Cola 600 race

Mary Ramsey, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Former President Donald Trump will signal the importance of North Carolina in the 2024 election when he returns to the Charlotte area Sunday for the Coca-Cola 600, political experts say.

It will be the first time a sitting or former president has taken in a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord. The visit coincides with the state Republican Party annual convention in Greensboro over the weekend, though it’s unclear if Trump plans to visit the convention.

It’s not the first time Trump’s gone to a major sports event or the first time NASCAR has been caught up in politics. Its fan base is one that has long been perceived as conservative-leaning and that candidates have tried to woo. That includes the former president, who has forged relationships with some of NASCAR’s biggest names and waded into past controversies in the sport. However, the sport has tried to distance itself from politics in recent years.

Those realities and the significance of North Carolina as a swing state this election cycle make Sunday a prime opportunity for Trump to get the attention of voters he needs, experts say. Trump posted his narrowest win over President Joe Biden in 2020 in the state.

“It’s a great visibility thing,” said Republican strategist Larry Shaheen.

Political history with NASCAR

Trump’s relationship with NASCAR is not new.

Then-NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France endorsed him in 2016 at a rally alongside Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and drivers Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Ragan. Following in the footsteps of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Trump served as grand marshal of the Daytona 500 while running for reelection in 2020.

The connection between the sport and the president became more complicated later in 2020, when Trump referred to driver Bubba Wallace’s allegation that a noose was hung in his garage stall at a speedway in Alabama as a “hoax” and said Wallace, who is Black, should apologize. An investigation into Wallace’s claim found that the rope had hung in the stall for years, but NASCAR president Steve Phelps rejected the idea the initial allegation was part of a “hoax.”

After the Wallace incident, the widespread racial justice protests of 2020 and the rise of the anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” chant at races, NASCAR banned displays of the Confederate flag at events and most political sponsorships.

Still, racing has a fan base that leans Republican, data show. A 2023 survey by The Harris Poll and Sportico found that 54% of NASCAR fans identify as conservative, and 69% of those surveyed said their perception of NASCAR fans is that they lean conservative.

“Politically, it fits his base,” Shaheen said of Sunday’s expected crowd.

The Coca-Cola 600 is one of NASCAR’s four crown jewel races. At 600 miles, it’s the longest race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

Why is Trump coming to Coca-Cola 600?

Shaheen said Trump’s ability to position himself as a sports fan by attending football games, UFC fights and more has allowed him to connect with voters. The candidate has gotten largely positive reactions from crowds at past events.

“With all his flaws and character issues, it’s funny because he has been a hero of the working man over the course of the last several years,” he said. “... It’s a winning strategy.”


Political scientist Eric Heberlig said Trump’s visits to sporting events “are a different twist” on the rallies that have become a “signature” of his presidential campaigns. The former president’s ongoing hush money trial in New York has limited his ability to stay on the campaign trail.

“The bulk of the audience there isn’t there to see him. They’re there for the event. So it allows him to reach a broader audience than he otherwise would,” said Heberlig, a professor at UNC Charlotte.

Sunday’s visit is also a sign of the significance of North Carolina to the 2024 election, Heberlig added. Both Trump and Biden have already made multiple visits to the state this election cycle.

“Presidential campaigns put a lot of effort into prioritizing where they’re going to have an event. They’re consciously thinking about which states are competitive, which media markets they need to be in, in order to have the maximum impact,” he said. “So yeah, it’s very intentional that he’s choosing to come to North Carolina, since we’re going to be one of the few competitive states this fall.”

Will Trump’s visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway help his NC campaign?

Trump likely will benefit from the media attention he gets in the Charlotte market while in town and from the word of mouth spread by those who see him at the Speedway, according to Heberlig.

“And it’s free,” he said. “He doesn’t have to pay for it in his paid advertising.”

Heberlig added that he’ll be watching to see exactly what Trump does at the event, including whether he interacts with fans or finds opportunities to “put his own spin” on the day.

Shaheen said it will be “interesting to see what the television coverage is like” of Trump’s visit, including how much he’s shown on FOX’s broadcast of the race, when evaluating how much impact it had on his campaign.

He added the visit won’t just get attention in Charlotte, but also Cabarrus County, where the speedway is located and where Republicans are focused on getting a strong victory in November.

“Cabarrus County is a must-win. That’s why he’s there,” he said.

The Democratic National Committee is responding to Trump’s planned visit with two billboards in the Charlotte area, one on Interstate 85 and one at an Interstate 77 and 85 interchange, telling voters to “beware Trump’s extreme MAGA agenda for North Carolina.”

In a statement on Trump’s visit, the Biden campaign called Trump “far out-of-step” with North Carolina voters.

“Donald Trump is the reason we have an abortion ban here in North Carolina. Now, he’s promising to throw hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians off their health care and kill the good-paying clean energy jobs President Biden has brought to our state … Our state, and our campaign is going to continue to hold him accountable,” campaign spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said.

©2024 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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