TMS Officials Brush Aside NRA Controversy
FORT WORTH, Texas _ With the exception of a U.S. senator from Connecticut, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage says there is no controversy surrounding the National Rifle Association’s title sponsorship of Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race here.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy has sent a letter to News Corp. media mogul Rupert Murdoch requesting that his Fox Sports network pull the plug on the NRA 500, set for 7 p.m., EST. Murphy noted the race will be run at a time when the Senate is considering legislation to reduce gun violence in the aftermath of the grammar school shootings last December in Newtown, Conn.
But Gossage, who announced the sponsorship deal during the track’s annual Media Day in March, rejected that argument. And the race will be televised as scheduled.
“Since this race sponsorship was announced we’ve received fewer than a dozen cards, letters, emails, etc.,” Gossage said during a wide-ranging news conference Thursday afternoon. “Of those, two were people that have bought tickets here before. And so there is no controversy, there is no big uproar – or even a tiny uproar.
“As far as this senator, I appreciate personally a publicity (mention). I really do, but I think Rupert Murdoch will recognize it for what it is. That’s two times he’s (Murphy) bit at this apple, so he’s gotten himself some publicity both times.”
NASCAR officials say that they are sensitive to the subject and in the future, will take closer looks at sponsorships.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” NASCAR spokesman David Higdon told reporters. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
The NRA’s sponsorship is for one year, but contains an option for a second year. TMS’ inaugural Cup race in April 1997 was sponsored by Interstate Batteries. Past title sponsors have included Primestar and Harrah’s Casino. Last spring’s race was billed as the Samsung Mobile 500.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s outspoken executive vice president, declared in a video announcing the sponsorship that “NRA members and NASCAR fans love their country and everything that is good and right about America. We salute our flag, volunteer in our churches and communities, cherish our families and we love our country.”
The City of Fort Worth bills itself as “Where the West Begins,” and its Stockyards area is a prime tourist draw. In keeping with the Texas theme, Saturday’s Cup race-winner will celebrate in Victory Lane with the Boot Trophy – a pair of hand-carved cowboy boots; by doffing a Charlie 1 Horse Stetson hat along with his car-owner and crew and by firing-off a pair of pistols. That latter tradition began with the April 2005 Cup race, then called the Samsung/RadioShack 500, with Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing the first to fire the pistols.
In addition, the Cup driver who qualifies on-pole used to receive a special edition rifle. That tradition began when Ryan Newman of Evernham Motorsports qualified first in April ’05 but ended last year after the sponsor failed to renew.
TMS’2013 Media Guide states: “The post-race celebration focuses on the icons of the Lone Star State and on one will ever wonder where the victory celebration took place.”
Murphy contends the six-shooter celebration does not promote gun safety, prompting Gossage to reply: “I think the fact that they’re not loaded…(means they’re fairly safe).”
“It’s clearly a sensitive subject and I think that’s a question to be answered by Eddie Gossage or the staff here at the track,” five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports said Friday. “It’s a very sensitive subject; as drivers, we’re here to do our job and put on a great race this weekend. The title sponsorship of an event is well outside of the driver’s focus or anything we have to do with. I do recognize that it is a very touchy topic right now.”
O. Bruton Smith, CEO/chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., said he was unaware of Murphy’s comments. “I don’t even know who that person is,” Smith said. “But whoever it is, I’m not going to vote for him next year.”
Smith’s SMI empire includes TMS and seven other venues playing host to NASCAR’s three major touring series. A title sponsorship typically costs in excess of $1-million.
“I want to thank the NRA for sponsoring this event because they’ve been great to us (and) Speedway Children’s Charities,” said Smith, referring to SMI’s non-profit organization that distributes funds to charities and foundations helping children in need. “We’ve raised a little over $50-million over the years (since 1982) to support the children, and NRA has been a big contributor to what we’ve done. I thank them in many ways and every chance I get and I’m glad to see that they’re a sponsor.
“And since I’ve been here in Texas, I was in a restaurant the other day and this lady came up with her husband and she thanked me and was so glad to see NRA here. I thought that was awesome.”
Ironically, Murdoch called for an automatic weapons ban in the wake of the Newtown massacre and the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July. But Murdoch has not let his personal beliefs dictate programming on his networks, including the conservative-leaning Fox News. Murphy took note of Murdoch’s views on the issue while petitioning him to cancel the primetime broadcast:
“I write today to urge you to not broadcast NASCAR’s NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13th. This race, which is being sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA), is going to take place during the Senate’s consideration of legislation to reduce gun violence. The race not only brings national attention to an organization that has been the face of one side of this heated debate, it also features the live shooting of guns at the end of the race. This celebration of guns is inappropriate in the immediate wake of the Newtown massacre.
“But most importantly, broadcasting this race, which will highlight the NRA and its radical agenda during this time, sends a harmful signal to the families affected by gun violence, as well as the millions of Americans who support sensible gun control measures and enjoy your sports programming.
“You should play a constructive role in our national dialogue by refraining from broadcasting the NRA 500. By airing this race you will be strengthening the brand of a radical organization that is currently standing in the way of meaningful progress on this issue.
“Considering your support of sane gun control measures and the extreme nature of the NRA, I urge you to not broadcast this race on April 13th. Inserting Fox Sports in this debate at this critical time will give credence to an extreme organization that is opposed to reasonable policies to stem gun violence. Thank you in advance for your consideration.”
Gossage was asked if the ongoing gun-control debate in Washington, D.C., might increase scrutiny of the race.
“Who’s scrutinizing?” Gossage asked, rhetorically. “The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters. The public isn’t asking the question. I mean, they’re not asking one question. (Only) one senator from Connecticut.” Gossage then spelled out Murphy’s last name.
While the first race at TMS with NASCAR’s Gen-6 Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas has dominated discussions this weekend, the NRA’s title sponsorship has filtered into the garage area.
“I think it’s a good fit for Texas,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports. “I think it’s obviously a decision the track made; they partnered with them. I think that our opinion is if we get an opportunity to win the race, we’re going to treat Victory Lane just like any other race and we’ll be happy to celebrate just like everybody else has celebrated here in the past.”
Earnhardt noted that he owns guns and likes to hunt. “When I’m not hunting I keep my guns in a safe, (where they are) out of reach from my younger family members and my nieces and nephews,” Junior said. “I like to hunt and I believe in ownership, but I also believe in responsibility. You can’t ever be safe enough in regards to that, especially with gun ownership.”
Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski – who said he’d love to add a military tank to his collection of vehicles _ admitted he’d rather keep politics out of stock-car racing. “That is certainly not the situation though,” said Keselowski, of Penske Racing. “Sometimes we get thrown into it whether we want to or not. I think the best thing is just to acknowledge it and try to move on with it.
“For me, I really just wish Tony Stewart or someone would throw a helmet or a punch so it (NRA sponsorship) wouldn’t be a story. I don’t think it is a story and maybe that is part of who I am. I own rifles and those things and I don’t own pistols but I would like to own two of them after Saturday night. I enjoy that style of life and I think we should all move on with it and let people have fun.
“That’s all I can say. Let us have fun. I don’t think we need to take ourselves that seriously.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments