TMS wants NRA 500 to be about racing, not guns

Posted Friday, Apr. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- April 13 will be business as usual at the Texas Motor Speedway.

The signature race that day has drawn national media attention for its new name and sponsor: the NRA 500, for the National Rifle Association gun-rights advocacy group.

But race promoters say they want America's attention focused on racing, not debating gun control.

"It's another race for us and it's just like all the others in so many ways," Eddie Gossage, president of TMS, said Friday. "It's not going to be a gun rally. It's going to be a race."

Officials announced last month that the NRA will be the title sponsor for the April 13 Sprint Cup race at TMS, igniting a firestorm of controversy among some because gun rights have been a nationwide issue since the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six educators dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

This isn't the first time the NRA has sponsored a race, but it does come as communities and schools nationwide are considering new security measures and ways to ensure safety for schoolchildren -- and lawmakers at the local, state and federal level have discussed various gun control measures.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy -- a Democrat whose district includes Sandy Hook Elementary -- was so outraged by the sponsorship that he sent a letter to NASCAR officials asking them to drop the NRA sponsorship of the local race.

"NASCAR has crossed a line -- you have decided to put yourself in the middle of a political debate, and you have taken a side that stands in opposition to the wishes of so many Newtown families who support common sense gun reform," Murphy wrote. "Whether or not this was your intention, your fans will infer from this sponsorship that NASCAR and the NRA are allies in the current legislative debate over gun violence.

"NASCAR has inserted itself into a political debate that has nothing to with the business of NASCAR."

Gossage said this wasn't a political decision.

It was about business.

He said he's received very little feedback about the NRA sponsorship -- and the bulk of what he has heard has been positive.

"We've had a relationship with the NRA here for a dozen years or so," Gossage said. "They've sponsored things on the track, billboards and such, they just haven't sponsored anything this major."

Gun rights

The issue of gun rights and gun control became inflamed in January when President Barack Obama promised to do everything he can to make a reality the country's most aggressive gun-control proposal in decades. He called on Congress to create a slew of gun-control measures, such as creating a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun to reinstating the ban on military-style assault weapons and on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

As guns and ammunition have flown off the shelves at gun stores throughout the country, the NRA has been at the center of the gun-control debate.

Earlier this year, Michael Waltrip drove a car featuring logos honoring the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings -- and a logo promoting the Sandy Hook School Support fund -- in the Daytona 500.

At TMS, when Samsung decided not to sponsor the TMS race again, the NRA signed on to sponsor the elite race for one year.

Now Clint Bowyer will drive a car at Texas Motor Speedway with the message "With Rights Comes Responsibility. Secure Your Firearms," in the April 13 race. Bowyer's sponsor, Gander Mountain, also has an online campaign underway encouraging responsible gun ownership.

Gossage said ticket sales are at the same point as they were for this race last year and the track expects about 150,000 fans to attend the race, which has been described as the one sporting event that has drawn the biggest annual crowd in Texas for the past 17 years.

"Come to the race on Saturday, April 13, and no one will hand you NRA literature or force you to sign up for an NRA membership," Gossage said.

Texas law states that concealed handguns are not allowed at the speedway.

Those in the marketing industry say the NRA sponsorship is a clever business move.

"They're trying to play to as many people as they possibly can," said Bob Akin, a marketing instructor at TCU. "I think that's very smart of them. There's a lot of competition for sports dollars in marketing sponsorships out there.

"When it comes down to it, everybody has a message they want to get out."

Six-shooters

Observers say that the NRA and NASCAR are a good match -- and that the media attention stemming from this partnership should only bring more people out to the racetrack.

"The NRA just bought credibility, top-of-mind awareness and a four-hour-long advertisement," said Edward DeSantis, a marketing professional for the First General Services of Western PA. "It's the difference between good, strategic marketing, and just plain marketing."

After the announcement, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre issued a statement saying that NRA members "salute our flag, volunteer in our churches and communities, cherish our families and WE LOVE RACING!"

But some fear that the partnership sends the wrong message at a time when gun safety should be a priority.

"This sponsorship has riled up many folks," Marty Smith, ESPN's lead NASCAR reporter, said recently. "Angered some, filled others with Second Amendment pride. Regarding Texas, I've had countless fans tell me via social media they won't watch the Texas race because they're turned off by the NRA sponsorship.

"Following Sandy Hook and Aurora, there is no hotter-button political topic in United States of America than gun control. There is no more sensitive topic."

At the end of the NRA 500 next weekend, the winner will fire six-shooters filled with blanks -- a tradition at the racetrack since 2005.

Gossage said he briefly considered abandoning the tradition because of media scrutiny, but then realized there was no need to change it.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized it's part of a celebration," he said. "What we are trying to accomplish is that the photo that runs around the world the next day, you don't look at it and say, 'Where was that?'

"There's no question that it's in Texas."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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