President Donald Trump took his official limousine for a lap around the Daytona 500 track ahead of Sunday’s NASCAR race in Florida.
As “The Beast” rolled onto the storied speedway, the tens of thousands of fans in the stands erupted in applause. The warm welcome continued as the souped-up and armored Cadillac navigated the course and as Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, exited the car.
The 2.5-mile loop was a presidential first.
Earlier, in an interview from the track, Trump told Fox Sports that while he’s not able to drive his own car as president, he was tempted to get behind the wheel of one of the race cars.
“Right now, if I can, I’m gonna hop into one of these cars and I’m gonna get into this race, if possible,” he joked.
The president, with Melania Trump by his side, started the race with a short speech.
“My fellow race fans, the Daytona 500 is the legendary display of roaring engines, soaring spirits and the American skill, speed and power that we’ve been hearing about for so many years,” he told the crowd. “Rubber will burn, fans will scream and the great American race will begin.”
Trump thanked the “tens of thousands of patriots“ gathered at the speedway and touted the race as “pure American glory.” No matter who wins, he said, “what matters most is God, family and country.”
He then issued the race’s iconic command: “Gentleman, start your engines!”
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) February 16, 2020
Donald Trump at the Daytona 500 continues a Republican presidential tradition
Trump became the second sitting president to attend the Great American Race, after President George W. Bush in 2004, the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. won it for the first time. Earnhardt was on hand Sunday and waved the green flag as honorary starter.
Ronald Reagan started the tradition of Republican presidents attending NASCAR races in 1984, and George H.W. Bush followed suit in 1991. But neither man appeared at the Daytona 500 while in office.
Trump, as usual, brought his own brand of showmanship to the event. When he arrived in Daytona Beach on Air Force One, the plane swooped down some 800 feet above the roaring crowd, according to Fox’s broadcast.
Wow. Listen to that crowd! 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/aff3YIzZD2
— Erin Perrine (@ErinMPerrine) February 16, 2020
“I have been to a lot of Daytona 500s, Chris,” NASCAR driver turned Fox announcer Jeff Gordon said as Trump flew in. “Never have I felt the excitement and energy. We’ve got great racing on the track but we’ve got the president landing right now, the fans are pumped up, I mean, wow, what a day!”
“It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” added Jamie McMurray, another former driver and an analyst. “What an entrance by the president of the United States!”
Trump knows NASCAR
Trump has a long relationship with NASCAR. He was endorsed by NASCAR CEO Brian France during the 2016 presidential election.
Many people in the president’s conservative base are NASCAR fans, and Trump’s campaign is taking advantage of the president’s appearance to fly an aerial banner near the speedway and run a television ad during the Fox broadcast of the race.
“NASCAR fans are patriots who support the president in huge numbers, so we definitely wanted to communicate directly with them about Keeping America Great during the Great American Race,” 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.
Florida is one of a handful of U.S. states that swing between Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections. Trump won the state, where he has golf courses and a home that is now considered his primary residence, in his race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump plans a fundraising swing and political rallies in western states later this week.
(Reuters contributed to this report.)