When Eddie Gossage was growing up there were two people he wanted to meet more than anybody else.
“Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel,” Gossage said.
Both, of course, were tremendous self-promoters. At the zeniths of their respective careers, Ali and Knievel made it impossible to disregard them.
“I just admired both of them for their style and their flamboyance,” Gossage said. “I didn't know at the time I was watching them … I was learning how to promote.”
Whatever osmosis occurred has served Gossage well in his job as president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, where Sprint Cup cars will compete today in the Samsung 500.
Gossage has never met Ali and only talked to Knievel on the phone before the legendary daredevil's passing. But he has come to know Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith well, and Gossage probably comes as close as anybody in racing today to matching his boss' spirit of showmanship.
Their pairing was forged by fire. When what is now Lowe's Motor Speedway's lights were ceremonially lit for the first time in 1992, Gossage was working at the track and helped set up pyrotechnics rigged to a switch Smith threw. But when the fireworks went off, sparks caught Smith's hair on fire.
He wasn't seriously hurt and Gossage decided to try to have fun with the incident. The next day Gossage sent Smith a fire extinguisher with a note of apology.
That afternoon Smith called Gossage. One of Smith's friends in Hawaii had seen video of the incident. “I'd used his money to send out coverage of me setting him on fire,” Gossage said.
Smith wasn't angry. He was impressed something that had happened in Concord was on television in Hawaii.
A few years later Smith gave Gossage the task of leading the effort to get the Texas track to reality. That had a rocky start, too.
Rain turned parking lots into quagmires and set off an epic traffic jam for the inaugural race in 1997. The next year the track had water leaking through the surface.
Even after those rocky two years, Gossage has been a lightning rod. He doesn't run from controversy, instead he runs toward it.
When Gossage learned Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon had been involved in an argument after a race before an IndyCar Series event at Texas, Gossage said he literally could not sleep that night waiting to start capitalizing the next day. By week's end he'd promoted the Texas race like a Patrick-Wheldon prize fight.
“We've got the Dallas Cowboys with Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson,” Gossage said. “We've got (Dallas Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban. Alex Rodriguez played here for the Texas Rangers. As big as you think high school football is in Texas, it's bigger. Meanwhile, we've got the Sprint Cup drivers here for six days all year. That means they're not here 359 days a year.”
So Gossage injects his track into the news however he can. He calls newspapers and television and radio stations challenging their decisions when he feels Texas Motor Speedway isn't getting its due. Reporters gather around him for fear of missing the next provocative remark.
Gossage said he's “toned things down” considerably during the past few years. Part of that is because despite all of the challenges, among all tracks built over the past 15 years or so Texas Motor Speedway has put down the healthiest root system.
“We are the most successful major-market race track in the country,” Gossage says.
I'm not sure Ali could have said it better.