VALDOSTA, Ga. — On the eve of Super Tuesday, Republican front-runner Donald Trump accepted the endorsement of NASCAR’s chief executive and several of its prominent drivers — even though the organization distanced itself from him last year because of his comments about illegal immigrants.
More than eight months ago, Trump launched his presidential campaign and immediately sparked controversy for saying in his announcement speech that many illegal immigrants are violent criminals and that the United States should build a “great, great wall” on the southern border. Protesters urged any corporation or organization with ties to Trump to sever them and many did. In early July, NASCAR announced that it would no longer hold its season-ending awards ceremony at Trump’s luxury hotel in Miami, the National Doral.
But that controversy — which Trump has said is the greatest he has ever faced — did not sink his presidential campaign. Instead, Trump skyrocketed to the top of the polls and stayed there, having won over the support of many voters who either liked his immigration stances or liked that he didn’t back down when confronted by protesters. Trump has held firm on his promises to deport millions of illegal immigrants and build a wall on the border, even increasing the promised height of the wall. Some of those who had initially written his candidacy off are now taking him seriously, either adopting his positions as not as outlandish as they originally thought or backing him.
On Monday night, NASCAR CEO Brian France joined Trump on stage at a rally at Valdosta State University in what Trump described as an endorsement. France said he has known Trump for more than 20 years and admires the family he helped raise.
“That’s how I judge a winner: How someone manages their family, raises their family,” France said. “That’s how I judge a winner.”
Then came endorsements from Bill Elliott, a popular retired driver, and three active drivers: Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Lee Regan.
As the group left the stage, Trump thanked them and then told his audience: “That’s cute. They just said: ‘Keep that wall going.’ We’re going to keep the wall going. Believe me. Believe me.”
Throughout the rally, Trump kept bringing up the wall, at one point asking the audience who would pay for the wall, with supporters answering in a booming: “Mexico!” Issues that brought so much controversy eight months ago were loudly cheered by the massive audience on Monday night. Only a few protesters were on hand, unlike at a rally earlier in the day in southwest Virginia where Trump was repeatedly interrupted. Before the Georgia rally began, security staffers escorted out about 30 black students who said they were standing silently at the top of the bleachers, according to USA Today.
In a speech that lasted fewer than 40 minutes, Trump slammed the media for being dishonest, bragged about his poll numbers and criticized his rivals. He promised to negotiate better trade deals, challenge China, repeal the Affordable Care Act, protect gun-ownership rights and be “greedy” for the nation so that it can be wealthy once again. He described Christianity as being weakened piece by piece and pledged to not allow Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslim, into the country.
Trump also urged the Georgia audience to vote on Tuesday. The scoreboards in the university athletic hall displayed the numbers 2016 and 76, the number of delegates up for grabs in Georgia in the primary. (Trump has already collected 82 delegates, leading the GOP field. There are 2,340 delegates still available.)
“This is in fact a movement — this is not, like, me. This isn’t about me. It’s about you,” Trump said. “I’m just a messenger. And I’m just a messenger, folks.”