By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There are Democrats who enjoy NASCAR. Jews and atheists and women, too.
You wouldn’t know it lately, not after several events this season, including the invocation before Saturday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. Duck Commander founder Phil Robertson used the address to pray “that we put a Jesus man in the White House” and noted that “alright Texas, we got here via Bibles and guns.”
Robertson, a star of “Duck Dynasty,” has publicly voiced his support for Ted Cruz in the presidential race. His son, Willie, has endorsed GOP front-runner Donald Trump, and the family has always been vocal with its conservative beliefs. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Robertson used his time on stage to push an agenda.
Yet in many ways it was because NASCAR has tried for the last several years to present itself as a sport that embraces diversity, that no longer tolerates many of the racial stereotypes so often associated with the sport.
Last year, NASCAR chairman Brian France took a strong stance against the presence of Confederate flags at race tracks and said he would do everything in his legal power to prevent them from being displayed. It was a progressive move and unusual.
Sports are supposed to be entertainment, after all, and most fans don’t tune in expecting or wanting to see soapbox speeches. It’s why the stick-and-ball leagues try to stay neutral. When they do embrace America, it’s done in safe ways such as the singing of “God Bless America” or recognizing military personnel. The logos for Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL are all red, white and blue, and league leaders tend to avoid politics and polarizing positions in an effort not to offend fans who don’t share their views.
NASCAR has always been the exception.
The France family, which owns the series, has long welcomed political candidates at their events and has a history of making public endorsements. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. endorsed George Wallace for president. Brian France last month endorsed Trump, and even recruited a handful of drivers to attend a Trump rally in Georgia.
The Trump endorsement was met with significant backlash and France said he was disappointed that his record on promoting diversity had suddenly been called into question. He has spent at least the last decade trying to help his family business shed its image as a sport for intolerant rednecks, but there is no away around it: His Trump endorsement put those efforts at risk.
Then came the Robertson commentary on Saturday night, which Texas Motor Speedway officials said Monday they did not know was coming.
The Robertsons and Duck Dynasty had a three-year sponsorship agreement with the speedway, and the contract allowed the family to fill all honorary roles however they chose. The Robertsons even had a lesser-known family member sing a cringe-worthy version of the national anthem, but Will Robertson’s vocals were the least of NASCAR’s problems after the stump speech from the family patriarch.
His stance, coupled with France’s endorsement of Trump, presents a confusing picture of what NASCAR represents.
There are many who oppose the act of giving an invocation before every race because they don’t like religion shoved down their throats, but the pre-race prayer is a longtime tradition that NASCAR doesn’t seem to have any interest in abandoning. In Texas, it happened to give Robertson the chance to promote his conservative views, which ultimately are a reflection on NASCAR.
Three years ago, Texas Motor Speedway allowed the National Rifle Association to be the title sponsor of its spring race just months after NASCAR participated in a deal that put a car in the Daytona 500 that specifically honored the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
It was an embarrassing mixed message and NASCAR swiftly issued guidelines requiring approval for race naming rights. The policy gives NASCAR the option to reject a sponsor if its “brand has been tarnished by controversy, crisis or circumstance such that its association with the event would damage the NASCAR brand or the image of the sport.”
Whether Robertson violated that clause Saturday night is a matter of opinion. Either way, NASCAR needs to take a serious look at the message that is being delivered each week and how entering the political arena is clouding the image France wants to project.