Right at the intersection between sports and politics: that's where NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France placed himself on Monday, when he publicly endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally on the campus of Valdosta (Ga.) State University.
France's endorsement was a "private personal decision by Brian," a NASCAR spokesman said in a statement to SB Nation. Despite NASCAR's quick clarification, the line between what France says as NASCAR ambassador and what he says as a private citizen is not just blurred. The two sides have indelibly melded together.
France is perfectly within his right to support whichever candidate he deems best. But publicly doing so is sure to be seen as an endorsement from NASCAR as a whole, a point accentuated when France appeared in the sport's heartland with host of notable names in tow. That includes a 16-time most popular driver as voted by fans (Bill Elliott), a former Daytona 500 winner (Ryan Newman) and a rising star (Chase Elliott).
"I've known Donald for over 20 years," France said during the rally. "I'm going to tell you one thing about him: You know about his winning in business and success. I'm here to tell you he wins with his family. Any of his children, you'd be proud to have them as part of your family.
"That's how I judge a winner, how somebody manages their family, raises their family."
A private company, NASCAR was founded by France's grandfather, Bill France Sr., in 1948. Brian's father, Bill Jr., took control of day-to-day operations in 1972. Brian France was named chairman and CEO in 2003, and ever since has been the corporate face of NASCAR and its central decision-maker.
Under Brian France's leadership NASCAR, albeit belatedly, has made public efforts to be more inclusive and move beyond its Southern roots as a white, male-dominated sport. That cultural shift began in 2004 with Drive for Diversity, a program to attract and train minorities and women to participate in the sport. The initiative has helped launch the careers of Kyle Larson, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Daniel Suárez, all of whom have achieved success within NASCAR's three national tours.
Wallace, the son of a black mother and white father, became the first African-American since Wendell Scott in 1963 to win a NASCAR national division event when he won a Camping World Truck Series race in Oct. 2013 at Martinsville Speedway.
Larson, a Japanese-American who won the 2014 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year Award, is a three-time Xfinity Series race-winner and his talent has drawn comparisons to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Suárez is the reigning Xfinity Rookie of the Year.
NASCAR has also seen Danica Patrick become the first female to win a premier division pole when she captured the No. 1 starting position in qualifying for the 2013 Daytona 500. She has since gone on to record six top-10 finishes in 120 starts, and become one of NASCAR's most popular and marketable drivers.
Beyond Drive for Diversity, NASCAR has worked to shed its good ol' boy reputation by taking steps to eradicate the Confederate flag. It was a symbol once embraced and prominently displayed on the cover of programs and starting events by waving the flag.
Following the slaying of nine African-Americans by a white gunman inside a Charleston, S.C., church last summer, France called the Confederate flag an "offensive symbol" and stated NASCAR would "go as far as we can to eliminate the presence of that flag."
All of which makes France's Trump endorsement dumbfounding. His support is a dramatic about-face from last July when NASCAR pulled scheduled award ceremonies at a Trump-owned resort in South Florida following derogatory comments the business mogul made about Mexican immigrants. Most recently, Trump initially refused to disavow David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, who also supports the billionaire candidate.
While France has said he wants to see the sport he governs be more inclusive and disassociate itself with a symbol of hate, he endorsed a presidential candidate who espouses divisiveness based on religious beliefs, frequently utters misogynistic comments, has proposed deporting undocumented immigrants and building a wall between the US and Mexico, and has openly stated that Muslims should not be allowed into the country.
France may think he's clear in saying he -- not NASCAR -- is backing Trump, yet even the presidential candidate seemingly had difficulty distinguishing between the two.
"If the people that like and watch NASCAR vote for Donald Trump, they can cancel the election right now," Trump said at the rally. "Nobody else can win. Nobody."
This isn't the first time the France family has publicly supported a controversial man aspiring to be Commander in Chief. Both Bill Sr. and Jr. supported George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who ran for president in 1964, '68, '72 and '76.
But this is supposed to be a more progressive and open-minded NASCAR, ideals that presumably should be reflected by the person leading it. At a time when NASCAR is beholden to corporate funding more than ever before due to the astronomical costs it takes to compete, the sport's leading figure advocating for someone who regularly offends large segments of the population is a questionable business tactic.
Last summer, as NASCAR was contemplating whether to distance itself from Trump, Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis wrote a letter to NASCAR stating neither he nor any of his employees would attend an awards banquet held at a Trump property.
After France's public appearance on Trump's behalf on Monday, Lemonis again expressed his dismay, this time in the form a terse tweet.
"There is no place for politics/any political endorsements in any business," Lemonis wrote."Your customers and employees should have their own mind. #period"
With Sprint's title sponsorship of NASCAR's preeminent series ending at the conclusion of the 2016 season, it's not implausible to think France's task of finding a replacement may have gotten considerably more difficult with his words and actions on Monday. Any potential company interested in spending millions upon millions on the sport will surely seek clarification.
For now, one thing is blatantly apparent. Donald Trump loves NASCAR -- or at least his idea of what it represents -- while the CEO who has spent his whole tenure claiming to welcome diversity just embraced Trump in return.