The NRA 500 is set for Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway. It marks the first time that the organization, which is at the heart of the polarizing gun-control debate, has sponsored a Cup event.
The NRA sponsored a Nationwide Series race last year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but that event didn’t have the notoriety of a Cup event and the NRA wasn’t in the spotlight as much prior to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.
Race sponsorships for the sport’s biggest tracks typically cost more than $1 million, and TMS President Eddie Gossage said that the NRA “paid full boat" for the deal. Whether the sponsorship continues could be determined by the public outcry this week.
But Gossage doesn’t expect that to be a problem — not in Texas.
“This isn’t a sponsorship that would work if you were at Sears Point Raceway (near San Francisco)," Gossage said. “We’re Texas Motor Speedway and I know what works here and what doesn’t. This isn’t an issue here."
There won’t be NRA members passing out leaflets at the track and there will be no pro-NRA speeches during the weekend. Gossage said Monday he was unsure whether NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre will attend. When the sponsorship was announced, LaPierre said, "NRA members and NASCAR fans love their country and everything that is good and right about our country."
Former NBA player Karl Malone will give the command to start engines and Texas Gov. Rick Perry will wave the green flag.
Gossage said that it’s mostly the media that has made noise about the NRA sponsorship.
“It’s just not a big deal to the public. … The public isn’t having a problem (with this)," Gossage said.
But politicians have reacted and gotten involved. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote a letter to NASCAR asking for it to step in and not allow the race to be sponsored by the NRA. Race entitlement sponsors make sponsorship deals with tracks, but NASCAR has the right through its sanction agreement to nix a sponsorship.
The NRA and Murphy are on opposite sides of proposed gun control legislation being debated following the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and six staff members at the Connecticut elementary school.
“By giving the NRA sponsorship of a major NASCAR 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 in a letter to NASCAR.
“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 released a statement when the sponsorship was announced saying that the sponsorship “falls within the guidelines for approval for that event."
Murphy said in an interview Wednesday that he talked with NASCAR Chairman Brian France by phone and got the impression that France had “some level of discomfort about the arrangement," but he has gotten no official response from NASCAR.
“I’m concerned that it gives the NRA legitimacy at a moment when they deserve none," Murphy said. “The NRA, in my mind, has become an extreme political organization, very distant from the organization’s roots.
“The NRA is clawing for legitimacy and they found a way to get it by aligning themselves with NASCAR." Sporting News