DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump participated in the ceremonial pre-race events at Sunday’s Daytona 500, the biggest NASCAR race of the year, which also opens the 2020 season.
The President was greeted with loud cheers during a pre-race speech, which began at 2:33 p.m. ET and lasted roughly four minutes.
Flanked by first lady Melania Trump, Trump began his remarks with, “My fellow race fans, the Daytona 500 is a legendary display.” He closed with, “Rubber will burn, fans will scream and the great American race will begin.” He ended his remarks at 2:37 p.m. ET to chants of “USA” and to his 2016 campaign tune, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Trump then served as the race’s grand marshal — only the fourth sitting president to do so for a race at Daytona International Speedway — giving what’s commonly described as the most famous words in motor sports: “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
In recent years, the command traditionally has started with the gender-neutral address “Drivers,” but there were no women competing in the Daytona 500 this year.
After fulfilling this grand marshal duties, the motorcade drove down pit road and around the iconic 2.5-mile race track, with the 40-car field and the pace car behind it, which was a first for a sitting president. However, the 22,000-pound presidential limousines remained on the inside of the track below the apron and did not go up the track’s banking.
His lap was met with wild cheers from his supporters in the crowd at the Daytona track, where flying “Make America Great Again” flags in the infield have been nearly as ubiquitous as American and NASCAR-related flags in recent years.
The President issued one final address specifically to drivers on their official radio transmissions before exiting the track:
“Drivers: It was an honor to officially open this year’s Daytona 500 and drive the first Parade Lap with you. Thank you. You are the best in the world at what you do, and I want to wish you luck in today’s Daytona 500. I hope you all have a fantastic race.
“You should all be proud to be competing in this incredible event. The Daytona 500 is the biggest race in the world and all of America is watching. Give the fans a great show!
“And to all the race fans. I love your passion for this sport. I hope you enjoy The Great American Race! God Bless you and God Bless the United States of America!”
Following the command, the U.S. Air Force did a second flyover for the crowd below, following their traditional one at the end of the national anthem. They did a maneuver called a delta burst, where they enter the space above the track in a delta formation before each turning in opposite directions, resembling fireworks.
Earlier, around 1 p.m. ET, Air Force One flew by the track before landing at adjacent Daytona Beach International Airport as “USA!” chants broke out among supporters in the infield. Former NASCAR CEO Brian France was seen descending from the plane with Trump.
The President was met at the airport by NASCAR co-owner and CEO Jim France and his wife Sharon; NASCAR vice chairperson and co-owner Lesa France Kennedy and her husband Bill Christy; and NASCAR executive vice president Ben Kennedy and his guest Chelsea Saunders.
With his brief appearance at Daytona, Trump, who Brian France endorsed just days after the 2016 Daytona 500, became only the second president to serve as the grand marshal for the biggest race of the season.
“Daytona International Speedway has been privileged to have hosted several sitting Presidents of the United States over our history,” track president Chip Wile said in a statement ahead of Trump’s appearance. “We’re honored that the President of the United States has chosen to experience the pageantry and excitement of ‘The Great American Race’ by attending Sunday’s 62nd annual Daytona 500.”
President George W. Bush was the grand marshal for the 2004 Daytona 500, which Dale Earnhardt Jr. won.
During NASCAR’s summer visits to the Daytona track, President George H.W. Bush gave the command for the 1992 Pepsi 400 on July 4th, and President Ronald Reagan did it for the 1984 Firecracker 400, also in Independence Day, for what turned out to be Richard Petty’s 200th and final career Cup Series win. Reagan and Petty famously ate Kentucky Fried Chicken together after the checkered flag.
But the lap around Daytona before Sunday’s race wasn’t the only time this weekend Trump’s presence was felt.
Veteran driver Joe Nemechek raced in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener in a car backing Trump’s re-election.
Nemechek piloted the No. 47 Trump 2020 Chevrolet, sponsored by Patriots PAC of America, for Mike Harmon Racing. The 56-year-old Nemechek, who ran his first NASCAR national series race in 1989, has won 16 career Xfinity races and four Cup Series races. Nemechek finished 15th on Saturday.
Meanwhile, a mishap far from Florida caused a second Trump 2020 entry that was scheduled to compete in Friday night’s NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series opener to drop out.
Driver Tim Viens said Friday afternoon that as his car was traveling from Chicago its hauler slid off the road somewhere in Tennessee. The vehicle was unable to make it to Daytona Beach by 8 a.m. Thursday morning, so it was scratched from the truck race.
Viens, who found a PAC willing to sponsor his and Nemechek’s rides, said the idea was borne out of his political stance.
“I support the president. I support him and I’m gonna continue to support him,” Viens said.
Patriots PAC of America paid Mike Harmon Racing $25,000 on Feb. 5, according to an FEC filing.
Contributing: Ellen J. Horrow and The Daytona Beach News Journal; White House pool report