Brandon Just Wants to Drive His Racecar

WOODFORD, Va. — “What actually keeps you from getting any nausea is that you’re so zoned in on just doing this,” Brandon Brown said, speaking for himself after noticing that I’d barely avoided throwing up into my mask.

We were on our third loop on the oval track at Dominion Raceway, just a few yards east of Interstate 95 in central Virginia. After a couple of gentle loops, Mr. Brown steered us right up a short, sloped track — then floored the accelerator in the silver Chevrolet pace car and headed into a sharp left at 70 miles an hour.

He normally goes a lot faster, up to about 200 m.p.h., he said between turns. The trick is “keeping a lot of control and staying as smooth as possible, so you can drive as fast as possible,” he said. “You can ruin a lot of days if you start lollygagging and thinking of other things.”

Mr. Brown, wiry and intense at age 28, could talk about this stuff forever, and preferably nothing else. He has been dreaming of racing since he first got into a go-kart 20 years ago, and he will happily explain the nuances of the sport at length. But he has been losing sleep ever since he found himself suddenly tossed into what is every normal American’s worst nightmare: becoming a central character in this country’s hostile and divided politics.

Brandon Brown, you see, is the original Brandon, the guy in the anti-Biden rallying cry “Let’s Go Brandon!”

On Oct. 2, at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., he experienced the greatest thrill in his life when he raced to his first-ever NASCAR victory after 113 Xfinity Series contests. His face covered in sweat, an ecstatic Mr. Brown stood before an NBC Sports Network camera for the post-race interview, shouting, “This is a dream come true! Wow! Talladega! Dad, we did it!”

As the interview continued, a number of people in the stands started rhythmically chanting the name of President Biden preceded by a four-letter expletive, a chant that was clearly audible on the broadcast.

The reporter cut in with an attempt to stay on message and to cover up what was being said: “As you can hear, the chants from the crowd — ‘Let’s go, Brandon!’”

The moment was, objectively, pretty funny; it was also, to some on the right, a symbol of the way in which the news media ignores their views.

With the chant, a catchphrase was born. Soon afterward, “Let’s Go, Brandon” flags and yard signs popped up across the country. A Florida congressman intoned “Let’s Go, Brandon” on the House floor, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida referred to the “Brandon administration.”

Mr. Brown wasn’t listening to the crowd when he was basking in his win. He first noticed that he had become a meme when he checked Twitter, which he uses almost exclusively for tweeting about NASCAR, with the occasional mild joke thrown in, for his nearly 30,000 followers.

He thought it was kind of funny, and a couple of days later he tweeted the phrase, followed by, “*not political … just feelin myself.” He tried another line later that week: “To all the other Brandon’s out there, You’re welcome! Let’s go us.”

But the hot slogan of the American right doesn’t turn out to be something you can easily shake off. Now Mr. Brown finds himself facing a threat to his vocation: He’s an athlete on the cusp of breaking out in a sport that relies on corporate sponsors, a group that likes nothing less than the whiff of divisive partisanship.

“Our whole navigation is, you want to appeal to everybody, because, all in all, everybody is a consumer,” Mr. Brown said after our drive. “I have zero desire to be involved in politics.”

He had reached out to me, through a spokesman for his team, because he realized that waiting out the storm wasn’t working. But as his name took on a new meaning, his silence on the matter seemed to be a political statement. And for most athletes these days — and many others — politics can be hazardous to your ability to make money.

Mr. Brown, who grew up in Woodbridge, Va., and graduated from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., is unusual on the NASCAR circuit in that he’s neither part of a famous racing family nor a star driver hired by a well-funded team for his raw talent. He is simply an obsessive who loves to go fast, and he has been building his racing career with his father since high school.

He put in roughly a dozen races a year while he was a college student studying marketing (undergrad hobbies: “working on and cleaning my car”) and he and his team, Brandonbilt Motorsports, went full-throttle starting in 2019. In 2021, he drove in 33 races in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. He’s now the marketing director of Brandonbilt Motorsports, as well as its driver.

He hit a career crisis over the summer. While he’d had a few respectable finishes, he was not attracting enough sponsorship money to keep going. His father, who runs a construction business and helps underwrite the 14-person Brandonbilt team, told him it was time to pull the plug.

He responded by posting a video on Twitter that showed him making a used-car-salesman-style pitch for himself while standing in front of his Chevrolet Camaro with a giant For Sale sign draped across the hood.

“I’m bringing the deal to you!” he bellowed. “You could sponsor my rear end!”

Miraculously, it worked. Larry’s Lemonade and a cryptocurrency company called Trade the Chain signed on as sponsors. Their logos were on his car at Talladega when Mr. Brown raced to victory.

“I got to make sure I’m thanking all of my sponsors, every single one that’s been with me,” he told me. “And you want to make sure that they get their name in the spotlight.”

A major victory should have drawn more sponsors. Instead, what came out of Talladega was “Let’s Go, Brandon!”

My colleague, the columnist John McWhorter, a trained linguist, noted in a recent essay that the catchphrase was an American instance of a euphemistic language practice known in South Africa as hlonipha, in which an innocuous word or phrase is substituted for an utterance that may give offense. “Let’s Go, Brandon!” also functions as “in-group salute” for Republicans, Mr. McWhorter wrote.

That seemed not to sit very well with Mr. Brown. “I don’t want it to just be the substitute for a cuss-word,” he said. Then he reconsidered his position: “I mean, if it’s making it more polite, then, by God, I guess, go ahead,” he said.

Part of his problem is that he faces a microcosm of what NASCAR is navigating. The car racing association’s “challenge is to appeal to a new audience without alienating an old one, even as it seeks to distance itself from some of what that old audience held dear,” Roy Furchgott wrote recently in The New York Times. NASCAR is trying to appeal to a younger and more diverse new generation of fans and to hang on as a cultural hub of the conservative white South. Earlier in the day of Mr. Brown’s victory, a group of race fans convoyed with Confederate flags outside the speedway, the fourth such protest of NASCAR’s ban of Confederate flags from its events.

“This whole Talladega race win was supposed to be a celebration, and then it was supposed to be something that I was able to use to move up, and I really wanted to capitalize on that,” Mr. Brown said. “But with this meme going viral, it was more of, I had to stay more silent, because everybody wanted it to go on to the political side. I’m about the racing side.”

Before our lap, we talked about racing, and Mr. Brown was animated and intense as he explained the basics: how the Xfinity Series is similar to AAA, the highest rung of minor-league baseball, and why conserving gas is crucial (you lose time refueling). After the drive, we sat down at a picnic table by the Dominion Raceway. My stomach began to settle, and I started asking him about politics.

Mr. Brown looked away from me, over the track, trying to make sure he spoke carefully. He is a Republican, he said. He makes sure to vote on Election Day, and he would like to encourage others to vote, as well, but he would rather not say who he voted for.

And did he think we should, well, cuss at Joe Biden?

“The issue is, I don’t know enough about politics to really form a true opinion, so I really focus on racing,” he said.

He also said he’d been trying to think of how to turn “Let’s Go Brandon” into a positive.

“If they’re going to use my name, I’d like for it to be productive,” he said.

I pushed him a little on the substance of this optimistic point of view, and Mr. Brown brought up rising gas prices, a subject of obvious frustration in his line of work.

“Inflation as a whole is kind of a big one for us just because I mean, inflation affects everybody,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you vote, you know, it’s which way you look or what your beliefs are. Groceries go up. Fuel goes up. And so it’s things that I share frustrations with everybody. So if they’re going to use my name and I guess we have the shared frustrations, right?”

And he’s written an op-ed piece that will appear this Monday in Newsweek in which he seeks to explain himself and described his fear of being “canceled” by association. He also suggests a new slogan: “Let’s Go, America!”

I am usually a pretty confrontational interviewer, and I take pleasure in asking awkward questions. When Mr. Brown told me in the pace car, as I was nearly losing my lunch, “I love every minute of it,” I could relate.

He seemed resigned to the ritual of being interviewed by a newspaper reporter, and I think would have sat there with me by the track for quite a while more, navigating subjects he’s never really thought about.

We never got that far. It just didn’t seem fair. I found myself thinking that I would prefer to live in a country that permits racecar drivers, actors and musicians to avoid being grilled by people like me, and I made a quick exit.

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