Race Weekend Central

Racing To The Point: NASCAR Kept Its Head In The Sand With The NRA

NASCAR stood its ground in the weeks following Texas Motor Speedway’s decision to sign the National Rifle Association as the primary sponsor for Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race.

By not talking about the NRA sponsorship, let alone banning it, NASCAR tacitly gave their support to one side of the gun control debate. Was that intended?

The stance was simple: race entitlement sponsorships are signed by the track, not the sport’s governing body. So when Texas Motor Speedway announced that the NRA was going to sponsor a race seen by millions in the middle of a debate on gun control in Washington D.C., NASCAR effectively said, “It wasn’t us, it was them.”

Except the sport had final approval, after all and didn’t think twice about one of its marquee races being named the “NRA 500.” This is the same NASCAR that has been so concerned about its public image this season that it fined Denny Hamlin for mildly criticizing the Generation-6 car and suspended Jeremy Clements for a derogatory remark. Somehow, it completely missed the boat on the NRA.

That was, until Friday when NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said in a roundabout way, maybe we should’ve looked into this situation.

You think?

“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” Higdon 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.”

You guys couldn’t come to that conclusion on March 5th? It took until less than 48 hours before the main event for NASCAR to realize that “current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”

A four-year-old could’ve told us that.

Suddenly, NASCAR’s solid stance seemed to be melting away. And what really transpired that we didn’t expect to happen, from March 5th up until that point? Columnists around the country criticized the sport, families and friends of victims of gun violence were enraged and Congressmen ripped NASCAR. But the sport couldn’t see this coming?

On Thursday, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy wrote a letter to NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch urging him not to air the race on FOX.

“I write today to urge you to not broadcast NASCAR’s NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13th,” Murphy wrote. “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.”

Was that the turning point for NASCAR? By then, it was far too late — as with most NASCAR decisions. The NRA 500 was televised, and for the most part FOX analysts managed to tiptoe around the official name of the race. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch threw on a cowboy hat and fired trophy six-shooters in Victory Lane while a NASCAR fan shot himself in the head and committed suicide in the infield. In the end, the damage was done: overnight ratings (a 3.5 in the Nielsens) were the lowest in history at the track for FOX, the lowest for the sport in 2013 and a clear outlier in the uptick in support we’ve seen throughout the season.

One of my goals for this column wasn’t to get into a gun control debate. NASCAR claimed it didn’t want to be in the middle of the debate, either but it had a funny way of showing it. It turns out that no matter how many statements you put out about not taking sides, when the cars in your top series are racing past NRA symbols, your drivers are sitting in front of them in the media center and your race-winner is firing six-shooters in Victory Lane, viewers at home might get the crazy idea that you have taken a side.

And the NRA knew that. It was trying to make a political statement; NASCAR and Texas Motor Speedway laid out the platform to do so. It just took the brilliant public relations minds at NASCAR until 48 hours before to realize the enormity of the situation. If you only heard Higdon’s comments on Friday, you’d think NASCAR got bamboozled.

The sport’s Chairman and CEO, Brian France and a host of NASCAR executives made a trip to Newtown, Connecticut in February to visit with victims families and first responders. France made a sizable donation to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund, and NASCAR portrayed a sensitive and caring public image. Two months later, that image has been flipped upside down.

New York Times reporter Viv Bernstein interviewed David Wheeler, the father of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy, who wrote in an email, “NASCAR can solicit or agree to endorsements from whomever they choose. Looking to NASCAR as a beacon of sensitivity, good taste or judgment, however, might be a mistake.”

Wheeler’s right. And if there’s one thing fans have learned in 2013, looking to NASCAR for common sense decisions might be a mistake as well.

Contact Brett Poirier

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