That Eddie Gossage sure is one hell of a promoter.
The outspoken, gregarious (and conservative) Texas Motor Speedway president got his track's spring race a whole heck of a lot of publicity at TMS's media day on Monday when it was announced that the NRA would replace Samsung Mobile as the title sponsor of the Sprint Cup Series April 13th 500 mile race.
Yes, that NRA. The National Rifle Association, a group well known to most Americans and even more well-known to the people who make up NASCAR's core demographic.
Just two weeks ago, one of the most talked about cars at the Daytona 500 was one that bore a solicitation of monetary donations for the community of Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook school shooting left 26 people dead. In addition to that number that people could text to donate to, the car was even No. 26 for the race instead of its usual No. 30. To hear the car's owners retell the story, it was NASCAR President Mike Helton's idea. NASCAR CEO Brian France gave $50,000 to the Newtown charity. The NASCAR Foundation matched it.
Now, less than two months later, the group whose CEO announced a plan to install armed guards in every school in the wake of the Newtown shooting -- a plan that did not go over well, mind you, is sponsoring a race on the same circuit's schedule.
I don't blame you if that seems incongruous.
This isn't the first time the NRA has sponsored a race; they were the title sponsors of the Nationwide race at Atlanta Motor Speedway last season, so their foray into motorsports isn't new. And they also sponsored Austin Dillon's car in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona last July. On Monday, Gossage said he saw no connection between the Sandy Hook tragedy and the NRA.
"I think, like everybody thinks, that was a heartbreaking occurrence," Gossage said. "But we don't see any correlation between that horrible act of violence and this organization."
Sponsorship agreements for races are negotiated and signed by the tracks and not NASCAR, but are ultimately subject to NASCAR's approval. And in a statement on Monday, NASCAR said that the agreement between Texas Motor Speedway and the NRA fell within the sanctioning body's guidelines for approval. So, in other words, there's no issue as far as NASCAR is concerned.
But should there be? It didn't take a soothsayer to see how controversial this sponsorship would be in the wake of Sandy Hook, even without the Newtown tribute car running at Daytona. But its presence in NASCAR's biggest race, and the attention that it was given when it was unveiled at NASCAR's media day preceding the Daytona 500 adds a layer of contradiction.
Yes, NASCAR is the safest area of sports sponsorship for the NRA. Many drivers, owners and crew members are avid hunters. The same can be said for fans. To put it bluntly, much of the NASCAR demographic is also the NRA's key demographic. The NRA knows this. NASCAR and its tracks know this. Gossage said that "The response on social media has been 99%, I'm not exaggerating, favorable. Most of those enthusiastically favorable."
As NASCAR has expanded from a regional southern sport to a national one that has only one full-time driver in its top series hailing from North Carolina, the sports home base, the tug of war of pleasing its most ardent and loyal fans while also appealing to a mainstream and corporate America has risen to the surface.
Fair or not, the decision to allow the NRA to buy the sponsorship rights for the race was going to churn up a lot of conversation and debate because of what was said by the NRA after Sandy Hook. In turn, that conversation could potentially cast the series in a not-so-flattering light of Southern Good-Old-Boys who just don't get it.
At Daytona, a Nationwide Series driver was suspended by NASCAR for two races after making an offhand racist comment in a conversation with a reporter. It was a strong public statement, one that was certainly made with any potential ramifications through public discussion from those remarks in mind. (Yes, sponsorship discussions were already well underway between the NRA and Texas Motor Speedway at the time of the suspension. However, it's another example of a contradiction.)
It's a perfect litmus test of that tried and true cliche that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Through this announcement, the issue of guns and gun rights is now near the forefront again. That discussion will continue through April 13, though it will be similar to what it was a couple months ago. Lines will be drawn. Minds won't be changed. There likely won't be much productivity. But this time, NASCAR will be involved.
Is the potential seven-figure amount from the NRA for the race sponsorship and the thousands of t-shirts sold -- not to mention the new NRA members enrolled at the track on race weekend -- worth it? NASCAR is about to find out.
-Follow Nick Bromberg on Twitter at @NickBromberg-
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