Life, Liberty, and the Open Road
On February 14, 1999, more than a hundred thousand people cheered and hailed Clarence Thomas, Grand Marshal of the Daytona 500. The raucous tribute came in a lavish event that would have been the envy of Tiberius. This honor was the culmination of his longrunning interest in race cars and the NASCAR racing circuit. Wearing a leather auto racer's jacket with a checkerboard stripe, Thomas waved to the crowd and basked in the thunderous reception and the warmth of a delightful winter's day in Florida. To him were reserved the honors of saying in his grand baritone voice, "Gentlemen, start your engines."
Thomas had learned the mechanics of automobiles from his grandfather. He became fascinated with professional auto racing later in life. One of his most valued possessions was his black Corvette ZR1. On it the ardent individualist had placed a personalized license plate: REZ IPSA, a variation of the legal phrase res ipsa loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself"). His knowledge of NASCAR was substantial and included detailed familiarity with the cars, drivers and tracks around the country. Southern white men were the predominant fans of NASCAR (for this reason, the host of one national sports talk show referred to the sport as "Neckcar"). Thomas told friends that he felt quite comfortable in the company of these fans, calling them "real Americans." Dick Weiler, his old friend from Missouri, said he was delighted to be named grand marshal: "He just thought that was a hoot."
On his speaking tours, Thomas still favored places such as Florida, and relatively obscure educational institutions, most of them in the South and West. An exception to this geographical bias was made for conservative conferences conveniently held in the D.C. area. It was to such an audience that Thomas spoke on February 9, right before his appearance before the throngs of NASCAR enthusiasts to the south.