Electioneering, speedway style

- Contributor
Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

I remember Jimmy Carter’s ill-advised stroll…

I remember quick, physical action by the Secret Service…

I remember the conflicting images of George Wallace…

I remember Bob Dole’s gaffe…

I remember Ollie North’s comeuppance…

And, of course, I remember Ronald Reagan’s historic trip…

As another national election looms on Nov. 6, recollection of politicians pursuing votes through personal appearances at NASCAR speedways returns to mind.

Some have been amusing, some puzzling, some heart-warming. All have proven unforgettable.

In 1976 Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy for president. At his “home track,” Atlanta Motor Speedway, Carter promised in the press box that if elected he’d invite the racing fraternity to the White House.

Reporters chuckled. “Lots of luck with that,” one said under his breath.

More on this later.

Carter won his party’s nomination and faced incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency.

Among Carter’s campaign stops was Darlington Raceway on the Labor Day morning of the Southern 500.

As Carter’s motorcade entered the track’s infield through a crossover gate in what was then the first turn, a Secret Service agent waved the final car with a single occupant to a stop. The driver panicked and kept going. The G-man grabbed a door handle on the vehicle, ran along for a few steps, and then was sent tumbling along the asphalt as the driver sped up. The agent arose with his face bloodied and pistol drawn.

Other agents blocked the car and dragged out the driver, spread-eagling him on the trunk. They were not gentle.

I was standing nearby, and to my astonishment some fans in the grandstand a few feet from the incident started shouting, “Shoot him! Shoot him!”

Of course, this didn’t happen.

After checking the guy’s documents, the agents determined he was legal and let him go.

Carter, unaware of the disturbance, delivered a short speech and then decided to exit the track by walking through the infield to greet fans there. Aware of the Darlington infield’s wild reputation, The Secret Service objected, but to no avail.

“Ol’ Jimmy doesn’t know what he’s doing!” writer Bob Hoffman, known for his witticisms, cracked in the press box. “In that place he might get plugged by a stray!”

Carter made it unscathed, of course, and when elected kept his promise of inviting drivers, crew chiefs, team owners and the motorsports media to the White House.

The party and barbecue dinner were held on the South Lawn, with First Lady Rosalyn Carter serving as hostess while the Marine Band played. The president couldn’t be there. He was at Camp David engaged in Mideast Peace Talks with Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel.

Willie Nelson and his band provided entertainment.

Most memorably, right there on the South Lawn of the White House, Willie sang his hit, “Up Against The Wall You Redneck Mothers.”

In 1968 Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president and campaigned at Darlington.

Holding a press conference in a damp, cramped media area known as “The Dungeon,” Wallace was warm and personable. It was difficult to believe this was the same angry man who spewed hate-filled words in his speeches.

Wallace visited only briefly during the early-morning hours prior to time trials. Few fans were around.

It was hard to figure. Had Wallace come to the track later in that race weekend he would have met a mostly-friendly crowd and seen a sea of the Rebel flags that essentially were his symbol.

Ollie North, the retired Marine colonel who was a central figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal, ran for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1994. At a Richmond Raceway event a large motorhome with “Ollie” emblazoned on its sides circled the track in the pre-race parade.

Then, against agreement with track officials, the vehicle was parked strategically in the infield near the first turn. Fans watching on TV couldn’t miss seeing it as cameras followed the cars through that corner. Meanwhile, the motorhome was blocking the view of many fans in the grandstands.

Repeatedly, orders came via the PA system that the motorhome be moved. It was to no avail.

Finally, an angered track president, tough ol' Paul Sawyer, sent a large wrecker to tow "Ollie" out. Only when the hook was being attached did the driver appear from the rear of the motorhome to crank up and drive away.

Almost certainly, that incident cost North votes among the furious fans whose view of Turn 1 was obstructed. In any case, he lost.

In 1996 Sen. Bob Dole ran for the presidency against incumbent Bill Clinton. Dole came to Charlotte Motor Speedway to campaign at the UAW-GM Quality 500 in October, just a month prior to the election.

Speaking during pre-race ceremonies, Dole ill-advisedly blurted, “I love racin’ and country music!”

It sounded as if a big majority of fans booed.

“I know when I am being patronized,” one fan told me.

Dole lost.

In contrast, President Ronald Reagan did everything just right as he campaigned for reelection by visiting Daytona International Speedway for the Pepsi Firecracker 400 in 1984.

He gave the command to start engines via radio from Air Force One. During the 400, as he became the first setting president to attend a race, Reagan appeared genuinely excited as he watched from the suite of NASCAR’s Bill France, Jr.

The president saw Richard Petty win a thriller, edging Cale Yarborough at the deciding flag.

It was the popular Petty’s record 200th victory, and it made history other than in NASCAR. Petty, a politician back home in Level Cross, N.C., became the first county commissioner to upstage a president of the United States.

The president was elated and didn’t mind.

Petty, see, was among his most ardent backers.

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