FORT WORTH, Texas The National Rifle Association should feel right at home sponsoring Saturday’s NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway, the NRA 500.
Tradition there is that Sprint Cup Series pole winners are presented with a rifle, and the race winner fires a pair of six-shooters loaded with blanks in Victory Lane.
But when the Texas speedway and the NRA announced the sponsorship deal March 5, in the wake of mass shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., it put NASCAR in the center of the national gun control debate.
NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said Thursday that shouldn’t be the case.
“NASCAR has no official position on the gun rights debate,” he said. “Our fans, racing teams and industry partners come from all walks of life and thus have varying points of views and opinions.
“As a sport, we are in the business of bringing people together for entertainment, not political debate.”
Both sides say the NRA 500 sponsorship – such deals typically are worth more than $1 million – sends a message, though they disagree on what the message might be.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, declared in a video announcing the deal 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 racing.”
But U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote a letter to NASCAR chairman Brian France, suggesting the sponsorship suggests an alliance.
“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,” Murphy wrote.
Then, Wednesday, Murphy sent a letter to News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch, asking that his Fox network not broadcast the race.
“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 13,” Murphy wrote.
Issue-oriented sponsorships are not new in NASCAR. Political campaigns have sponsored teams in the past, although they are not allowed to use slogans on the cars.
A difficult economy plays a role, too. Teams and tracks look everywhere for sponsorship dollars, the lifeblood of the sport.
Clint Bowyer’s team, in fact, has a one-race sponsorship for Texas from Gander Mountain, and his No. 15 Toyota will feature promote gun safety, with the slogan “With Rights Comes Responsibility; Secure Your Firearms.”
And while the NRA’s title sponsorship of Saturday’s race didn’t break ground – the group sponsored a Nationwide Series race a year ago at Atlanta – the timing raises an issue NASCAR had not faced. Should approval of sponsorships consider the political climate?
Up to now, it hasn’t, but it might in the future, Higdon said.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” he said. “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.”
‘A perfect fit’
When TMS President Eddie Gossage announced the NRA deal, he said it was a perfect fit for Texas.
But is it a perfect fit for a national TV audience? Fox, which will air the race in primetime Saturday, is obligated by its contract to mention the sponsor once an hour. The NRA has not purchased any advertising to be aired during the telecast.
None of Fox’s current advertisers have pulled out because of the NRA sponsorship, and it is unlikely the issue will be mentioned during the broadcast.
“We will honor our contractual obligations to NASCAR,” said Lou D’Ermilio, senior vice president of communications for Fox Sports.
Reigning Cup series champion Brad Keselowski, also a team owner in the Truck Series, just wishes the issue would go away.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but for myself, I’d like to just stay out of politics and just race,” he said. “That’s not the situation. Sometimes we get thrown into it whether we want to or not.
“The best thing is probably to acknowledge it and then move on from it. For me, I don’t think it’s a story. Let’s just have fun.
“We don’t need to take ourselves that seriously.”