(Terry Renna / Associated…)
Reporting from Daytona Beach, Fla. — Mitt Romney, in a tight race against Rick Santorum for next week’s Michigan primary, took a side trip from Michigan campaigning to Daytona Beach, Fla., to attend the 54thrunning of the premier stock-car racing event of the season, the Daytona 500.
It’s a regular pilgrimage for both past presidents and presidential contenders trying to solidify their standing with NASCAR dads, the bloc of patriotic, blue-collar voters with a history of voting Republican.
Today’s Daytona 500 trip is Romney’s second appearance at the Daytona International Speedway. He toured the track in August 2007 as a presidential hopeful.
The former Massachusetts governor arrived at the Daytona International Speedway around 9 a.m., first enjoying a private breakfast with the France family, the billionaire founders of NASCAR. He wore a bright-red Daytona 500 jacket, a traditional gift for special guests.
Brian Z. France, the third-generation France to serve as chairman and CEO of NASCAR, introduced Romney at the pre-race meeting with the racing teams, corporate sponsors of NASCAR and other celebrity guests.
Romney was seated at the VIP row between Grammy-winning artist Lenny Kravitz, who performed at the pre-race concert, and Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi. Other executives in the standing-room-only room included top officials from General Motors, Ford and Toyota, as well as more than two dozen other corporations that provide the monetary fuel that keeps NASCAR running.
“Believe it or not there is another race going on around the country. It’s a race for the White House,” said France, as he introduced Romney.
“This combines a couple of things I like best, cars and sports. I appreciate the spirit of the men and women that are driving today,” Romney said.
“This is a chance to really look at some of the determination and great quality of the human spirit,” he said. “It’s quintessentially American. I love what you’re doing.”
During the meeting, Romney met the NASCAR drivers, their families, the racing team owners and the other VIPs. He enjoyed watching the historic footage of Daytona 500 victories through the years, laughing with the other crowd members at footage of the famous post-race fist fight between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough in 1979.
Throughout the morning, Romney signed autographs and took photographs with racing fans. He walked along the infield grass to meet fans for nearly an hour, despite a steady drizzle that delayed the beginning of the auto race.
Brian Vickers, a NASCAR driver not participating in Daytona 500, helped guide Romney through “pit road,” the area where the race cars were still parked and teams have their pit crews stationed.
Romney was introduced to the race audience along with other Florida politicians in attendance. Despite the steady rain, he offered some hope for rain-soaked race fans: “We’re going to see some great racing!”