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President Donald Trump kicks off Daytona 500 as grand marshal

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 16, 2020

President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, speaks before the start of the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)
President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, speaks before the start of the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)
By Eric Adelson and Felicia Sonmez The Washington Post

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Great American Race became a boisterous campaign stop for President Donald Trump on Sunday as a Daytona 500 infield normally full of flags supporting racecar drivers turned into a sea of banners and other memorabilia supporting Trump’s re-election campaign.

“My fellow race fans, the Daytona 500 is a legendary display,” Trump said to applause as he and first lady Melania Trump welcomed the crowd at the Daytona International Speedway.

No matter who wins, the president said, “What matters most is God, family and country.”

“Rubber will burn, fans will scream, and the great American race will begin,” he said, prompting chants of “USA! USA!” from the crowd.

Trump’s motorcade then took a lap around the track as cheers rained down from the grandstands. The president also addressed the drivers on the official radio, saying: “Have a phenomenal day. Have a great race. Be safe. God bless you. We love you.”

Trump’s appearance as grand marshal was the first of several events this week for the president as he rallies supporters in a handful of key states. On Wednesday and Thursday, Trump will headline “Keep America Great” rallies in Phoenix and Colorado Springs. Then, on Friday, he will hold a rally in Las Vegas, on the eve of Nevada’s hotly contested Democratic presidential caucuses.

Trump is the second sitting president to attend the Daytona 500; George W. Bush attended the race in 2004.

Ahead of Trump’s arrival, which came more than a week after his acquittal by the Senate this month, support for the president was on full display.

There was a flag reading “Impeach This” and bearing an image of a red, white and blue middle finger extended. There was a cardboard cutout of Trump side-by-side with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A few Trump supporters climbed onto the roofs of their vehicles to watch Air Force One cruise overhead.

And there was raw emotion, as more than one supporter welled up with tears when talking about the commander in chief’s first visit to the race as president.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Jim McIntosh, 58, of New Jersey. McIntosh was one of several Trump fans who said they didn’t feel comfortable wearing supportive attire in their daily lives, but found a welcoming sea of support here.

“It’s a lot tougher to wear it at home,” he said. “Jersey? You can’t even wear a T-shirt when you go into Manhattan or New York.”

The president’s visit was a pleasant surprise to a lot of the fans who came earlier in the week in their campers and RVs. Most had plenty of Trump gear already with them, but some decided to buy extra apparel when they heard about the visit.

And while some critics of the president might accuse him of turning a sporting event into a campaign rally, his fans insist this event has been a Trump-fest for years.

“Every time you come here, it’s the American flag, whatever your favorite racer is, and Trump,” said T.J. Mcelaney, 49.

A canvassing of several supporters found no concerns over the president’s recent impeachment, or anything else. There was delight about the state of the economy and only a few grumbles about the president’s behavior and his tweeting habits.

Still, not everyone at the race was all in. Jean-Marie Detcher, 44, came down from New Hampshire and didn’t expect the overwhelming display of politics.

“It felt very uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t know how I feel about the (political) situation, and where we’re at.”

Detcher said she’s an independent and isn’t sure how she will vote in November. But the environment here bothered her slightly. “People are very passionate about it,” she said, “and it’s like if you’re not with them, you’re against them.”

Across the concrete path from Detcher, however, there was no question where the politics landed. Debra Soucia, 63, from upstate New York, had an RV with a flag bearing an artist’s rendition of Trump holding an assault rifle and standing atop a tank. She and her husband weren’t certain how much of their Trump gear to show until they arrived.

“We weren’t sure,” Soucia said. “Then we saw all the signs and we said, ‘All right, we’ll put our sign up, too.’ ”

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