By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Pat McCrory likes to spin a tale meant to illustrate his love for high octane and burned rubber.
It was 30 years ago, when the future governor of North Carolina was a 19-year-old who drove a ‘72 Fiat. McCrory says he saw the back gate had been left open at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so he slipped on in and watched David Pearson win the World 600.
McCrory draws hearty guffaws when he tells that story during appearances on behalf of NASCAR. He talks about how during his days as mayor of Charlotte, he used NASCAR to help recruit talent to the city, “especially mechanics, electricians, the aerospace engineers, the metallurgy specialists,” McCrory said last October.
McCrory also lauded an economic impact study that the speedway said shows a $450 million contribution from the track to the Charlotte-area economy.
It’s fair to say that McCrory loves NASCAR and NASCAR loves the governor.
That’s now a risky alignment as McCrory has doubled-down on North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom law” requiring transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. The governor and the U.S. Justice Department sued each other Monday, with the feds saying the law amounts to “state-sponsored discrimination” and McCrory accusing the Obama administration of rewriting civil rights law to protect transgender people’s access to bathrooms everywhere.
The law has been criticized by gay rights groups and led Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam to cancel concerts in North Carolina. PayPal reversed plans to open a 400-employee facility in Charlotte, and Deutsche Bank froze expansion plans near Raleigh. Nearly 200 corporate leaders from across the country, including Charlotte-based Bank of America, have called for the law to be repealed.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last month that the All-Star Game won’t be played in Charlotte next February if the law does not change. He also said he sees no reason to move the game now, because he’d prefer to first try to work with state officials.
That’s sort of the same stance taken by NASCAR, which waited well over a month to weigh in on the topic at all. NASCAR has offices in downtown Charlotte, its research and development center is located near Charlotte Motor Speedway, and most race teams are based in North Carolina. Yet NASCAR Chairman Brian France has been standoffish regarding the law, choosing to stay out of the fray with a soft stance of having behind-the-scenes discussions.
As always, the debate rages over the mingling of sports and politics. Since sports are supposed to be entertainment and a distraction from real life, many fans prefer their teams and players stay out of the fray.
But NASCAR doesn’t get that pass, because the series has so many openly blurred the lines. In one calendar year alone, France said the Confederate flag is not welcome at NASCAR race tracks, he endorsed Donald Trump for president and the pre-race invocation at Texas Motor Speedway was used to pray for a “Jesus Man” to win the White House.
NASCAR is so deep into this political cycle that there’s no climbing out of it anytime soon.
So what does NASCAR plan to do about a law that McCrory said Monday is not a North Carolina issue but a national issue?
Well, NASCAR could move the All-Star Race scheduled for May 21 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It would be a dramatic decision, one that would place a significant burden on fans who have already paid for travel arrangements, and a blow to Speedway Motorsports Inc., the owners of the speedway.
It won’t happen and NASCAR is just as unlikely to move the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. But even starting that conversation could get McCrory’s attention.
Unless, of course, NASCAR is OK with the law as it is currently written. If that’s the case, then silence and inaction probably is the best policy. After all, the governor is a NASCAR fan.