The stock cars weren’t the only things buzzing the track at Daytona Saturday _ Vice President Dick Cheney made his grand entrance when Air Force II flew in low over the crowd gathering for the start of the NASCAR race.
Cheney’s appearance at the Pepsi 400 was another chance this year for Americans to get a glimpse of the extraordinarily powerful vice president who normally operates behind the scenes. From the baseball diamond to the speedway oval, Cheney is turning up at lots of high-profile venues as part of an all-hands-on-deck effort at the White House to improve the GOP’s standing going into the November election.
Saturday offered a double-dip in the all-important political state of Florida: visiting the Kennedy Space Center and then catching the race, complete with a visit with the drivers and their crews.
Cheney hoped to see Discovery blast off on the first shuttle mission in nearly a year, but thunderstorm clouds forced a postponement. Cheney said he was disappointed, especially because he brought his three granddaughters along for the occasion.
“We’ll have to bring them back another day,” Cheney said. “It’s a great program, and it’s important that we keep going and keep our space program going.”
He then boarded his plane for the 75-mile trip north to Daytona Beach, shedding his coat and tie en route to fit in better at the race. The plane went over the track at 1,000 feet for a view of stands that were just beginning to fill up 2 1/2 hours before race start.
Upon arrival, Cheney’s motorcade went around the track at a relative crawl of 60 mph, passing fans on the infield who waved flags for their favorite drivers. Then Cheney spoke at the pre-race meeting, where he got a standing ovation with the drivers and their crews and his excited staff took pictures with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Cheney wished the drivers a safe race and thanked them for all their visits with troops. “NASCAR has developed a hell of a reputation, not only, obviously, for the stock car racing, but also for being tremendous members of the community,” Cheney said.
The events add to the list of memorable experiences for Cheney this year, including:
_Throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals home opener.
_Touring a Harley-Davidson factory in Kansas City, Mo.
_Visiting the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
In addition, he has spoken several times at military bases and politically important conventions. And he has headlined about 70 Republican fundraisers during the current election cycle, raising more than $22 million.
Republicans are concerned that their control of Congress could be in jeopardy this fall, with Bush’s leadership and the war in Iraq so unpopular among the public. Cheney is not particularly well liked among the general public _ more than 40 percent of those surveyed routinely telling pollsters they have an unfavorable opinion of him _ but he is more popular among the GOP faithful.
The vice president’s aides tried to extend exposure of Cheney’s Florida trip beyond the traditional audience, inviting a team from Sports Illustrated to join the traveling White House media. He also had interviews scheduled with Fox Sports and Motor Racing Network, which handles NASCAR’s radio coverage. There were also 679 media credentialed at NASA for the shuttle launch.
Joining the vice president and his wife, Lynne, were three of their grandchildren: Kate, 12; Elizabeth, 8; and Grace, 6. The five got an up-close view of the space shuttle Discovery, about 1.5 miles away, when the motorcade took them through the restricted launch danger area within 90 minutes of the scheduled takeoff.
They also toured the hangar where Atlantis was being prepared for a scheduled launch in August. All five craned their necks to look at the bottom of the orbiter, which hung a few feet above them.
The no-touching rule given to the rest of Cheney’s entourage clearly did not apply to him. He rapped one of the tires with his fist; no one objected.
More than 20 years ago, when Cheney was a congressman from Wyoming, he was at a shuttle launch. But the NASCAR race Saturday was a first for him.
The Pepsi 400 has become a popular event for national leaders. President Reagan was the first commander in chief to attend a race when he went in 1984. Both President Bush and his father have been, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld attended last year.
The Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway is a particularly patriotic event because it is scheduled for the Independence Day weekend and draws a large military crowd.
© 2006 The Associated Press