Bush Courts NASCAR Fans in Daytona Beach

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- U.S. President George W. Bush on Sunday became the latest president to make a high-profile pitch for the fast-growing NASCAR vote, traveling to Florida to join 200,000 fans in the stands -- and millions watching on television -- for the Daytona 500.

Before intoning, "Gentlemen, start your engines," to kick off the first event of stock-car racing's Nextel Cup series, Bush described himself as a speed lover, recalling his days as a Texas Air National Guard pilot after a sports reporter asked if he had any desire to drive one of the cars, which can reach speeds of more than 288 kilometers per hour.

"Well, I'd like to, but I'm afraid the [Secret Service] agents wouldn't let me," replied the president, who had donned a black NASCAR, or North American Stock Car, racing jacket. "I flew fighters when I was in the guard, and I like speed."

After facing a week of questions in Washington about his obligations as a guardsman during the Vietnam War, Bush's unsolicited mention of the Air National Guard came as something of a surprise.

A little more than halfway through the 800-kilometer race, won by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bush and his wife, Laura, left without fanfare and headed across the state to Tampa, where on Monday he is to conduct a "conversation" on the economy. This is Bush's 19th visit to the state where his brother, Jeb, is governor and which he won in 2000 by 537 votes, giving him the electoral votes that put him in the White House.

Bush's low-key departure from the Daytona International Speedway contrasted with his dramatic arrival, as his 20-vehicle motorcade, traveling slowly, crept its way onto the 4-kilometer track to the tune of "Help Me, Rhonda" by the Beach Boys.

Beyond the racetrack fence, several men stood on the roofs of their trucks waving Confederate flags. In the grandstands, cheers and applause rippled through the crowd. Many fans waved U.S. flags; others took snapshots. The cheering reached a crescendo as the motorcade came to a stop on the pit road and the president emerged to greet the 43 drivers.

Because of Bush's visit, fans had to endure long lines to pass through metal detectors and searches of their belongings. The presence of law enforcement -- including sharpshooters atop the grandstands -- was prominent throughout the complex.

Like the much-courted "soccer moms" of the 1996 presidential election, "NASCAR dads" are the rage this time. At first blush, they seem a natural Bush constituency: Often blue-collar, super-patriotic, culturally conservative, and concentrated in the South and in rural regions -- areas where stock-car racing took root.

"Obviously the president resonates much better with this crowd than Democrats, whose emphasis -- so far, anyway -- seems to be antiwar, almost exclusively," said Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.

The Republican National Committee on Sunday concluded a four-day "Race to Victory" voter registration drive at the raceway, part of an effort to register at least 3 million new GOP voters by Election Day.