Drivers meet Obama at the White House
8 September 2011
Jimmie Johnson was guest of honour at a reception for the 2010 Sprint Cup Chase contenders at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
"Last time many of these drivers were here, Jimmie was celebrating his third straight championship. He's got a couple more titles under his belt now," said Obama, who said that Johnson "is not just one of the best drivers of all time, he's up there with some of the great sports dynasties.
"Now, Jimmie is breathing down the necks of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most NASCAR titles ever, which is not bad for the son of a machine operator and a school bus driver who still has plenty of seasons ahead of him."
Obama said, "It's great to have #48 parked outside ... It's pretty tough to look at the #48 and not want to jump in it and take a few laps, although Jimmie would not be happy with me if I did that!" adding that the only thing he got to drive these days was a golf cart at the Camp David Presidential retreat dubbed Golf Cart One.
Johnson was joined at the White House by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer.
"We also need to give credit to the other Chase drivers up here who want Jimmie to know that the second he makes a mistake, they're going to be ready to knock him out of Victory Lane," Obama continued, who approved of the 'trash-talking' that is a NASCAR trademark. "You've got to have a little feistiness, and these guys are extraordinary competitors. And that's what makes this sport so exciting to watch. Everything can come down to just one race, one pit stop, one split-second decision."
The trip had turned unexpectedly controversial after four of the drivers invited - Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick - had declined. The drivers were accused of being disrespectful to the President and even unpatriotic by some quarters, while others took it as a sign that the foursome were critical of Obama's policies.
"I think that's blown a little bit out of proportion," Edwards had said, who explained that he simply had pre-existing business commitments that he couldn't move. "This is not only the busiest time of the year, this is about the busiest time of my life."
Greg Biffle had explained that he had to be at an event for his primary sponsors 3M which had been arranged for months before the White House Invitation came through at the end of August.
"I called [3M] and talked to them about the [White House] invitation, and this was very important to them," Biffle said. "The function is designed around me and they really can't have it if I can't go. Unfortunately, the date conflicts with the invitation."
Biffle said he had been "disgusted" by reports that he had rejected the invitation and said such reporting was "disrespectful", pointing out that in his home office he has a picture in pride of place of himself meeting President Obama on a previous occasion and shaking his hand.
Kurt Busch did attend, despite initial reports saying he had declined because of the need to attend NASCAR's official 2012 photoshoot which he has to complete before the end of September. "We'll be there," he had confirmed. "I mean, who would turn down the opportunity to go to the White House? To me, it's an honor and it's a privilege."
Given all the furore about the four drivers not making the event, it was somewhat ironic that NASCAR CEO Brian France also failed to make White House visit - after weather in the area stopped him from flying into Washington DC in time.