Were it not for the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary it probably wouldn’t be news the Texas 500 will soon become the NRA 500. In the wake of the tragedy questions are being raised as to the timing behind the NRA’s decision to purchase its first major NASCAR sponsorship.
"It's not about politics. It's about sports marketing," Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said of the one-year agreement with the NRA that includes a renewal option.
"Obviously we know the NRA well and I can tell you from just looking at the demographics, I can tell you from the social media that I've been sitting here monitoring since that announcement was made, it's probably 99 percent supportive. Some wildly supportive," he said. "The public, it doesn't seem to be they're going to have any issue with it, and I'm not sure why anybody would think they would.”
The Huffington Post reports a public advocacy group that criticized the NRA’s resistance to universal background checks isn’t surprised by the sponsorship.
"I think it is obvious that the NRA believes that they have an open, fruitful ground to plow and generate support for their extreme position among NASCAR fans," Agenda Project founder Erica Payne said.
Payne went so far as to criticize Michael Waltrip and NASCAR officials for running a car in last month’s Daytona 500 that displayed an advertisement for a Newtown victim’s relief fund. She found it inappropriate Waltrip and NASCAR would feature the benefit car yet remain silent on the issue of gun control.
The unofficial association of firearm ownership with NASCAR culture isn’t exactly a hush-hush topic, especially at the Texas 500. It’s a tradition for the winner of the race to fire off blanks from a pair of six-shooters in victory lane. Whoever wins the pole position is awarded a rifle.
"The NRA is our core fan base, and we all have guns, and all us racers love to go out and shoot,” said Sprint Cup rookie, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “It's part of who we are. Any time you have a sponsor that embraces their market and who their core customers are, it's great for us."
It would be hard to argue the NRA’s sponsorship of their first major NASCAR circuit race wasn’t influenced in some way by the gun debate ignited from the Sandy Hook massacre. What’s clear is the NRA believes they have something to gain by taking sponsorship of the Texas 500, particularly at a time when public interest in gun control reform is at such a high.
“They saw it was obviously a very attractive sports marketing opportunity and seized it,” Gossage said. “That's what it's all about. It's about putting on one of the great sporting events in America. I know in Atlanta last year they saluted a lot of the people that make America free. They are going to salute American freedoms and American families with this race. That's their plan so it seemed to be a good fit."
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president and CEO appeared in a video message during the track’s media day to comment on his organization’s sponsorship of the race.
"The NRA 500 is the latest announcement in the long history of a growing partnership between the NRA, Speedway Motorsports and the NASCAR community,” he said. "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!”
The NRA 500 will be held April 13 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. The race will air live on Fox.