Did Donald Trump just lock up the NASCAR vote?
“Mr. Trump is changing American politics forever, and his leadership and strength are desperately needed,” Brian France, chairman and CEO of the family-owned stock car racing association, said in a statement released by the Trump campaign on Monday. “He has had an incredible career and achieved tremendous success. This is what we need for our country.”
France’s endorsement of the Republican presidential frontrunner coincided with several NASCAR drivers throwing their support behind the candidate whose ties to NASCAR go back decades. France joined Trump onstage during a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, on Monday to sing the real-estate mogul’s praises.
France has donated to Republican politicians before, including Trump’s rivals Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina, and has been described as an “inquisitive news junkie” in a Los Angeles Times profile on how he is keeping NASCAR “relevant” in the 21st century.
“If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now,” Trump said at Monday’s campaign event. “Nobody [else] can win.”
The Trump campaign wasn’t satisfied to merely consider this an endorsement from a few professional drivers and a wealthy CEO—Trump himself announced this as the endorsement of the “iconic brand,” according to his campaign’s statement. (A NASCAR spokesman later said that France was not speaking for NASCAR, but had made a “private, personal decision” to publicly support Trump.)
And it’s the perception, within and without the Trump presidential campaign, that this is NASCAR’s endorsement of the former Apprentice star that has the CEO of one of NASCAR’s biggest sponsors a little bit pissed.
“If you are a business leader, you should not use [your] platform to discuss your political views … or your religious views,” Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO of Camping World, told The Daily Beast. “You serve at pleasure of your employees and the customers … [Brian] does not have that right to lay the blanket over an entire sport that is funded by people who write big checks to support him … He is crossing the line by using [for his Trump endorsement] the NASCAR backdrop that I spend millions of dollars on.”
This is what Lemonis (who also stars on the CNBC show The Profit) tweeted shortly after hearing about the NASCAR CEO’s Trump endorsement and rally appearance:
In 2009, Camping World became the title sponsor for the NASCAR Truck Series. In 2014, NASCAR and the Kentucky-based RV and camping company announced that they had extended their partnership through 2022. The seven-year extension was estimated to be worth at least $35 million.
This isn’t the first time that Camping World and the 2016 Trump campaign have been in the news at the same time. Shortly after Trump announced his White House run early in the summer, Lemonis wrote a letter to France expressing outrage at Trump’s comments about undocumented immigrants and Mexican “rapists.”
“Last year, our NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Awards Ceremony was held at the Trump National Doral in Miami, and due to recent and ongoing blatantly bigoted and racist comments from Donald Trump in regards to immigrants of the United States, I would like to inform you that I will not, nor will any representative of Camping World, participate or attend in the ceremonial event if it is held at any Trump property,” Lemonis, himself an immigrant, wrote, as reported in July.
“Our company will not stand to support any person or organization that associates with such beliefs and we feel strongly about distancing ourselves from any negative and discriminatory comments made against any gender, ethnicity, age group or so forth,” he continued. “I would hope that the entire NASCAR organization would agree with my sentiments.”
At the time, at least, it appeared that France and NASCAR were distancing themselves from Trump and his inflammatory political statements. The racing association subsequently decided not to hold its season-ending ceremony at the Trump National Doral in Miami.
Trump, for his part, fired back with a characteristically Trump-ish statement, saying that he got to keep NASCAR’s “very substantial deposit,” and that “NASCAR has already apologized to me.”
Trump has told his side of this story many times on the campaign trail, typically as a set-up and applause line for his adoring crowds. This week, Trump’s declaration of victory in the whole NASCAR kerfuffle over the summer seems to be, well, vindicated.
Lemonis is now saying that his objection would be similar if France had held a “pep rally,” as Lemonis described it, with any of the other 2016 candidates. However, when asked to name his biggest political turn-offs, Lemonis will list “lying and mistreating people”—and there’s only one presidential contender this cycle whose comments Lemonis has called out as “bigoted.” (Furthermore, in January 2014, Lemonis tweeted that “things may not be perfect in this country but it’s still the best in the world. Having Trump even run [for president] is a joke.”)
“I’m a big believer in freedom of speech,” he told The Daily Beast. “It allows my big mouth to fight for small business. That’s what I do on [my] show … and I’m blessed by that platform. But what I’m worried about is anyone dividing people, in an environment which is hard enough … What I am not for is the undermining of anyone’s culture, or anyone’s ethnicity … I’m not in favor of anybody dissing other people. There are plenty of other candidates who act in the same nonsense, it’s not just [Trump.]”
Lemonis, who once ran for the Florida House of Representatives when he was 22, says he will not be endorsing or openly supporting any candidate this election. He has been asked, on social media and elsewhere, if France’s support for Trump would cause him to reevaluate his business ties to NASCAR. Despite his harsh words for France’s decision, Lemonis is not pulling the plug on the sponsorship.
“Brian has made his decision, and I have a personal opinion on it,” he said. “I would not give Brian the satisfaction of thinking that his poor decision to do this would affect my support of a sport that I love. At the end of the day, I support a sport, and the people who watch it and the people who participate in it. The sport is bigger than any one man.”
A NASCAR spokesman and the Trump campaign did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.