At Nationals’ Racing Presidents tryouts, you need more than speed to be in the running

When it comes to wearing a five-foot-tall, 45-pound cartoon head, the race goes not to the swift or to the strong. It goes to the stable.

Unfortunately for Drew, a 27-year-old Clifton, Md., resident who competed Saturday to portray one of the Washington Nationals’ famed Racing Presidents, it was painful figuring that out.

Strapped into the fuzzy likeness of Abraham Lincoln for a trial heat on the Nationals Park warning track, Drew managed a quick start but soon started to wobble. A few yards from the finish line, he tipped over face-first, scraping his knee in the process.

Looking on was Tom Davis, the team’s senior entertainment manager and the ultimate judge of racing-president talent. “You don’t have to have the fastest time,” he said. “But you have to be able to control the costume.”

Drew redeemed himself somewhat by managing to get back on his feet and finish the race, earning a cheer from a fellow presidential hopeful: “Yeah, Abe! The great emancipator!”

“It’s just so top-heavy,” he said afterward. “I just leaned too far forward.”

More than three dozen Nats fans — most of them men in their 20s and 30s, all of them between the prescribed heights of 5-foot-7 and 6-foot-6 — were invited to Saturday’s tryouts. It is the eighth straight year the team has given the public a chance to don the presidential garb and play a leading role in what is perhaps the team’s most popular promotion.

For minimal pay, the Racing Presidents not only race during the team’s 81 yearly home games but also make hundreds of other appearances at charity events, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and other gatherings. Fifteen to 20 of those trying out will be selected for the coming year’s appearances, Davis said.

Also crucial in the team’s eyes: anonymity. As a condition of covering the tryouts, the Nationals asked media outlets to refrain from publishing the last names or other identifying details of the hopefuls.

Costume control aside, personality helps a lot. After two racing heats — a one-POTUS dash, then a mock race with two fellow commanders-in-chief — the contestants were asked to assume a victory pose and do a freestyle dance. Many of the dances tended to resemble the final convulsions of decapitated poultry.

Then, on to an interview round, where a panel of Nationals marketing employees questioned the hopefuls on their motivations, their scheduling flexibility and their strategies for dealing with terrified children. (“A lot of jazz hands” was one veteran’s secret.)

Candidates tried various strategies for standing out. Ken, a 24-year-old District. resident, donned a business suit for his interview. “Trying to keep it presidential,” the preschool teacher said. “Lincoln never wore a hoodie.”

Another candidate — 25-year-old Marin, one of only a few women trying out for a spot — touted her prior mascot experience, as a pelican. “Overall,” the District resident said, “I’m just a dramatic person.”

Bill, a 33-year-old nonprofit employee from Silver Spring, described himself to the panel as a “little ball of red-haired energy.”

After the interrogation, the father of two told a reporter that his wife and son are both okay with his pursuit of racing presidency. “She knows I’m a big goof,” he said. “He thinks Daddy’s going to be a baseball player.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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