DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brandon Brown drove into NASCAR’s home track and immediately saw his name everywhere. Banners. Yard signs. T-shirts. Flags waving atop row after row of flashy RVs.
“Hopefully, they know it’s for me and they’re pulling for me,” Brown said.
At least not completely.
One of the most unrecognizable drivers in NASCAR is in the clutches of a swirling culture war he never asked to be part of as he quietly pursued a racing career. Take a look around the Daytona infield and the “Let’s Go Brandon” flags that dot the landscape outnumber the ones for Earnhardt and Elliott — and embody the unofficial battle cry of the sport’s right-leaning fanbase.
NASCAR denounced the slogan. The fans who turned Daytona International Speedway into a Republican rally when former President Donald Trump visited two years ago — some still gleefully recall his pace lap in the armored presidential limo called “The Beast” — have revelled in hijacking a televised faux pas as an insult directed at President Joe Biden.
Brown just wants to race. Instead, the kind of spotlight he wished would have burned out by now continues to beam right on him.
Like it or not.
“There’s a lot of things that make me look like the enemy,” he told The Associated Press before his season opened Saturday with NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series race at Daytona.
The 28-year-old Brown unwittingly became entangled in this debacle when he won his first career NASCAR race in October in Alabama, and the Talladega Superspeedway crowd chanted “F— Joe Biden” during Brown’s interview.
It was not clear if NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast, who was wearing a headset, could hear what the crowd was saying during the interview, and she incorrectly told Brown the fans were cheering “Let’s go, Brandon.”
The slogan escalated into the fast-evolving pop-culture lexicon. Politicians shouted the phrase from the House floor and repeated the soundbite in campaign ads. Trump’s website offers ornaments, buttons and pint glasses — $29.95 for a set of two — with “Let’s go Brandon” stamped on each piece of kitschy merchandise. The souvenir shops that line Daytona’s streets sell Brandon-inspired T-shirts — none of them, of course, approved by NASCAR.
“But at the same time, my name’s out there. People know who I am now,” Brown said. “There’s some reputability to that.”
Brown had been relatively unknown while racing since 2014 in NASCAR’s two developmental series and had never won until Talladega. His euphoria in the aftermath dimmed as the slogan shot from meme to mainstream fodder. Brown largely stayed out of the fray.
“My goal was to stay silent and hope that it went away,” he said. “Obviously, it got legs of its own and people started putting words in my mouth.”
Brown granted few interviews. But he said he received “an overwhelming amount of hate” on social media as #LGB turned into a political football he wasn’t prepared to handle.
“For me, a big goal was and still is to change the narrative of what LGB means,” he wrote last month in a statement. “I would like it to become a constructive voice for those like myself, who land somewhere in the middle and have views that align with both sides.”
Brown drives for underfunded and undermanned Brandonbilt Motorsports team owned by his father, and the big-buck sponsorships that prop up teams in the series have been hard to find. Brown said he was determined not to capitalize on his newfound notoriety until he announced in December a full-season deal with LGBCoin. You know, a crypto coin capitalizing on the “Let’s Go Brandon” craze.
One problem: NASCAR had not approved the LGB sponsorship — even as Brandonbilt prematurely announced it.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s president, said the top motorsports series in the United States does not want to be associated with politics “on the left or the right.” Yet its conservative ties get top billing in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch is the honorary starter and Landon Cassill is driving a car fielded by Spire Motorsports and sponsored by Fox Nation.
Brown knows he won’t be able to shake #LGB, even as he tries to convince himself he can win over fans with his performance, not politics.
“I hope they’re saying it about the 68, right? That’s what we’ve got to hope they’re saying,” he said.
“Let’s go Brandon to get to victory lane.”