Daytona Beach, Fla. — President Bush throttled up his re-election campaign Sunday by donning a racing jacket and opening the Daytona 500, NASCAR's most prestigious event and one that draws a prized voter profile.
"Gentlemen, start your engines!" Bush said, squinting up from pit road to the grandstands, where some 180,000 fans cheered. They were promptly drowned out by the scream of stock car engines roaring to life.
Bush seemed to relish a chance to see what he called "one of America's great sporting spectacles."
The race provided an irresistible opportunity for Bush to woo tens of millions of NASCAR fans -- the sport claims a fan base of 75 million -- watching the televised event 8 1/2 months before the election. The crowd in the stands was almost exclusively white and heavily male. The phrase "NASCAR dads" has become political shorthand for voters who like Bush but who could be persuaded to vote Democratic if the issues and candidates were right.
His motorcade took a slow half-lap around the flat shoulder of the track.
With his wife, Laura, trailing him, Bush walked the pit, mingling with drivers, shaking hands with fans. He peered into car No. 16, sponsored by the National Guard, and if the car reminded him of the tempest swirling around his own service in the Texas Air National Guard, he didn't show it.
Bush referred to that history in an interview with NBC just before the race.
"I flew fighters when I was in the Guard, and I like speed," he said. "It would've been fun to drive up on these banks. ... I'd like to, but I'm afraid the agents wouldn't let me."
The president got a much warmer reception than Bill Clinton did when he visited a NASCAR race as a candidate in September 1992, when the question of his lack of Vietnam-era military service was dogging Clinton.
At the Southern 500 race in Darlington, S.C., Clinton was booed and heckled by fans, many shouting "draft dodger!" at him.
But if the magnitude of a sporting event is judged by the number of stars who attend it, then it's safe to say the Daytona 500 is among the biggest.
Ben Affleck, Whoopi Goldberg, LeAnn Rimes, Greg Norman, Evander Holyfield and Miss America Ericka Dunlap also were in attendance Sunday.
Affleck served as the grand marshal, even though some of his duties were given to President Bush. Goldberg was an honorary starter, and Rimes sang the national anthem and was the featured performer in the pre-race "Tribute to America" show.
Actor James Caviezel, who plays Jesus in Mel Gibson's epic "The Passion of the Christ," spent the race in Bobby Labonte's pit.
The movie already has drawn lavish praise from conservative clergy, but it also has drawn angry denouncements from Jewish groups fearing it will stir up anti-Semitism. On the hood of Labonte's car was a plug for the new movie.
"Just consider it as a life insurance policy," Caviezel said.