CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Brian France endorsed Donald Trump for president, the chairman and chief executive of NASCAR thought of it as nothing more than a "routine endorsement."
He's been dealing with the fallout ever since.
France's decision to personally back the front-runner for the Republican nomination has roiled a sport his family built from the ground up. It's threatened a decade of work to broaden NASCAR's appeal among minorities, upset one of the most powerful teams in the sport and risked a break with the corporate sponsors that are its financial lifeblood.
"I was frankly, very surprised, that my diversity efforts for my whole career would have been called into question, over this, in my view, a routine endorsement," France said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
France acknowledged he's had to have conversations with sponsors since making the endorsement, which came as NASCAR is seeking a new main sponsor for its top series.
"I made a few phone calls and clarified some things," he said. "That kind of goes with the territory."
France's appearance at a Trump rally a few days before last week's Super Tuesday elections fits with the sport's history of occasionally blending politics with the action at the track. France's grandfather, NASCARfounder Bill France Sr., endorsed George Wallace for president. Its all-time winningest driver, Richard Petty, celebrated his 200th victory with President Ronald Reagan and ran for statewide office in North Carolina in the 1990s.
France told the AP on Wednesday he backed Barack Obama in 2008 and actively participated in the campaign, shifting his support to Mitt Romney four years later.
"I supported Obama. I went to his rallies. I parted with my hard-earned money. There was a movement going on, and I was really thrilled with the idea of the first African-American president," he said. "I did the same for Mitt Romney. In both of those cases, I have never agreed with all of their policies."
But Trump is a candidate unlike any other in recent memory, drawing intense criticism for the racial undertones of his rhetoric and policies. The billionaire has called immigrants from Mexico rapists and drug dealers, has vowed to forcibly deport the 11 million people living in the country illegally and seeks to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the U.S.
Trump has also earned the explicit or implicit backing of a slew of white nationalist leaders, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has compared his language to that of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
It's into that cauldron that France inserted himself and his sport — admittedly without knowing all of what Trump has proposed. "I don't even know all their policies, truthfully," France said. He said he likes Trump's "business approach" and his status as a Washington outsider. He also cited the electricity around the Trump campaign and a friendship with one of Trump's sons, Donald Trump Jr., that dates back nearly two decades.
"I'm not supporting him for all of his views, or his immigration views," France said. "I happen to be very enamored by the excitement he's brought and the voter turnout that it is creating."
That excitement is what got Chase Elliott into a jam just two weeks into his new job at Hendrick Motorsports, where he's taking the place of retired superstar Jeff Gordon. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, the rookie has been cast as the sport's next superstar.
To the surprise of everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, France was joined by Elliott at the Trump rally in Georgia where he offered his endorsement. At 20, Elliott has yet to vote in his first presidential election. Trump called Elliott to the microphone, and the young driver stumbled through a few remarks before sheepishly joining his father and the rest of the NASCAR contingent off to the side.
A person familiar with the situation told the AP that Elliott, intrigued by the election process, agreed to an invitation from NASCAR to fly on a NASCAR plane to the Trump event in Elliott's home state of Georgia. It never occurred to the rising star to give his team or sponsors a heads-up, the person said, and Elliott realized he was in over his head when he began receiving heavy criticism on social media.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity, because the person was not authorized to discuss the details of Elliott's involvement.
While France does not regret his own participation in the Trump rally, he does feel badly for Elliott. "You never want to see anybody get their true positions distorted in the way that has happened," France said.
France is also trying to protect his record on diversity. He said NASCAR has spent "tens of millions of dollars" on a program aimed at boosting the participation of minorities in the sport. That program includes Japanese-American driver Kyle Larson, who competes in the top-level Sprint Cup, and Darrell Wallace Jr., a driver in the second-tier Xfinity Series who is black and who came up through NASCAR's diversity program.
NASCAR has also invested heavily in developing Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, who has risen to the Xfinity Series and currently leads its standings. Some of Suarez's current corporate backing comes from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Domit, whose family's TV production company cut ties with Trump last year after the real estate mogul announced his signature plan to build a wall along the U.S. southern border.
Asked about France's endorsement last week, Suarez told reporters: "I think Brian can do everything he wants on his own, but NASCAR is different. I'm in NASCAR, I'm not in Brian France, whatever."
Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World, the longtime title sponsor of NASCAR's third-tier Truck Series, wrote an open letter to NASCAR last year saying his company would boycott the season-ending banquets if they returned to a Trump-owned property. After France's endorsement of Trump, the Lebanese-born Lemonis wrote on Twitter: "There is no place for politics/any political endorsements in any business. Your customers and employees should have their own mind. #period."
France's efforts to quell criticism over what he insists was a "personal and private" decision have also been complicated by Trump's continued mentioning of how he's received "NASCAR's endorsement."
On Monday, at a North Carolina campaign rally not far from Charlotte Motor Speedway and the headquarters of many top NASCAR teams, Trump was ebullient in describing his backing from the sport. "You know, I just had a visitor backstage. NASCAR endorsed Trump, can you believe that?" he asked the crowd.
Except it wasn't NASCAR that made the endorsement. It was France.
"We talked to the campaign about the endorsement that I made, versus the sport, and it's hard to get that perfectly right all the time," France said.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump's campaign, said in a statement that he spoke broadly because the "endorsement is from the great Brian France, in addition to several NASCAR drivers."
In a company-wide email sent last week to all his employees, France reiterated that NASCAR has never had a policy prohibiting employees or competitors from participating in politics, but said that could change in the future.
He told the AP on Wednesday he understands that his endorsement can be viewed as one that comes fromNASCAR itself.
"I understand that the family is closely linked with NASCAR. ... We've just always, you've seen politicians come to tracks, and it varies, some Democrats, some are Republicans, all have policies we do and don't agree with," he said.