Why so many in NASCAR, and among sport’s fans, love Donald Trump

NASCAR great Richard Petty, right, hugs Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Greensboro Coliseum in June.
NASCAR great Richard Petty, right, hugs Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Greensboro Coliseum in June. AP

Kenny Campbell, who drove three hours from his home in Tennessee to watch this weekend’s races at Talladega Superspeedway, loves the family atmosphere he finds among his fellow NASCAR fans.

That’s why Campbell, an engineer and big Jeff Gordon fan, thinks NASCAR and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are a perfect fit.

“NASCAR has always had that close-knit, family-type atmosphere,” Campbell said Friday, standing in the garage area in Talladega’s infield. “It’s kind of a religious community, with a Sunday service you can attend if you want. That’s the kind of thing that I think Donald Trump wants for us, for America to be like that again.”

It’s safe to generalize that Trump will get the NASCAR vote – from the sport’s chairman, some current and former drivers and, of course, its fans.

Campbell was far from the only person at Talladega with a glowing opinion of Trump. In a highly unscientific survey of several NASCAR fans at the track, the Observer could not find one who supported Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“The mindset of the NASCAR fan base is more conservative,” said Daniel Rhodus, a fan from Lancaster, Ky. “This sport is more for the common man, and I don’t think Hillary really appeals to that.”

There are only a few signs, including one on a bicycle, supporting Trump and running mate Mike Pence around Talladega’s property, which includes acres of campgrounds surrounding the track. Indeed, confederate flags – still being flown at Talladega despite NASCAR’s request for fans not to display them at races – are more prominent than political signs.

(Trump is) aggressive. You go after what you want and get it done. No matter whose feelings you hurt.

NASCAR fan Michelle Loy

But the most obvious display of support for Trump came from Austin Wayne Self, who drove his No. 22 Toyota emblazoned with the Trump-Pence campaign logo and “Make America Great Again” slogan in Saturday’s Fred’s 250 Truck Series race.

“I’ve been supporting Trump since he decided he was going to run,” said Self, 20. “So I decided I want to make a statement. It’s not an endorsement or anything. The goal is to spread attention and to make sure people see how important it is to vote.”

Self said he hasn’t received any sponsorship money from the Trump campaign. He also hasn’t heard from the candidate and doesn’t really expect to.

“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, mostly on social media,” said Self. “There are a few (crashing into the) wall jokes. Some people have a good time with it. Some are stressing about it.”

Trump has received endorsements from several influential people in NASCAR, but the organization itself has not endorsed him.

Two of NASCAR’s most influential figures – Richard Petty and chairman Brian France – have personally endorsed Trump. France appeared with drivers Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Ragan and Hall of Famer Bill Elliott at a Trump rally in Georgia in March.

“We need a change, guys,” Bill Elliott told the crowd that day. “That’s all there is to it. And I think this is the man for the job.”

Mark Martin, another Hall of Fame driver, introduced Trump at a rally in Concord in March.

NASCAR spokesman David Higdon stresses that these endorsements are personal and that NASCAR itself does not endorse Trump.

Other drivers contacted at by the Observer weren’t interested in talking about the presidential race.

“It wouldn’t do our guys any favors to comment either way, so we will pass,” one driver representative said in a text message.

NASCAR has distanced itself from Trump in some ways. After Trump made controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants in 2015, NASCAR pulled its postseason awards banquet from the Trump National Doral Miami resort.

And Marcus Lemonis, chief operating officer of Camping World – the title sponsor for NASCAR’s Truck Series – has criticized Trump, as well as France for his endorsement.

“There is no place for politics/any political endorsements in any business,” Lemonis wrote on Twitter. “Your customers and employees should have their own mind.”

But it is Trump’s forceful personality that resonates with fans. It’s similar to what might make a successful race car driver.

“He’s aggressive,” said Michelle Loy, a fan from Hiram, Ga. “You go after what you want and get it done. No matter whose feelings you hurt.”

Michelle’s husband Matthew fielded a question about why there seemed to be few – if any – Clinton supporters to be found at Talladega.

Smiling, Matthew Loy said: “It’s NASCAR.”

David Scott: 704-358-5889, @davidscott14