Businesses are always being squeezed by the twin pressures of creating new customers while not alienating the ones they have. That’s certainly been true of NASCAR, which has been trying to diversify its fan base beyond the aging white males who now constitute its largest audience segment. So in signing up the National Rifle Association to sponsor a top-flight Sprint Cup race at the Texas Motor Speedway— a race now called the NRA 500— NASCAR is feeding its base. But is that at the risk of alienating potential new fans elsewhere? “We are never a political organization,” NASCAR chairman Brian France told me the day before the Daytona 500. “People are entitled to their own opinions. We will let them have their debate.”
France wasn’t addressing the NRA specifically then. In a statement, NASCAR said: “Race entitlement partnerships are agreements directly between the track and the sponsor. NASCAR reserves the right to approve or disapprove those sponsorships. The race sponsor for Texas Motor Speedway’s April event falls within the guidelines for approval for that event.”
NASCAR didn’t say what kind of sponsor would fall outside those guidelines. But the NRA 500 will take place just weeks after NASCAR hosted family members of victims of and first responders to the Newtown massacre at the Daytona 500, its biggest event. Michael Waltrip, who drives for Swan Racing, switched his racing car number to 26—to represent the number of shooting victims— to support the Sandy Hook Special Support Fund. Fans texted in donations from a number posted on every car in the race. NASCAR drivers and officials also visited Newtown, and France personally made a $50,000 donation, matching the amount given by the NASCAR Foundation.
Gun control advocates were quick to cry hypocrisy and point out NASCAR’s previous association with the NRA, and that neither Waltrip nor any NASCAR officials would make any statements about the gun control controversy. “We were moved when we went up there and met with the families, so if that’s viewed as gaming it one side or the other,” France said, “so be it.” France did not have to go far to get to Connecticut, since NASCAR has offices in New York City, where the mayor, Mike Bloomberg is a strident gun control advocate.
The NRA and NASCAR are a natural socio-political fit given the sport’s demographics. Nor is NRA new to NASCAR, having sponsored a lower-level race last year. NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre is a NASCAR groupie. He has been introduced at the pre-race drivers’ meeting with other VIPs and sponsors at tracks in Charlotte and Texas. And what racecourse could be more fitting to fly the NRA flag than the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth? And yes, the race will be broadcast by Fox, not TNT.
The Texas circuit is controlled by Speedway Motorsports, a publicly traded company that owns eight NASCAR tracks from New Hampshire to California. Although most publicly traded companies would floor it to get away from such controversies, Speedway’s CEO and controlling shareholder is O. Bruton Smith, who is both icon and iconoclast in NASCAR’s history. In a release about the company’s fourth quarter earnings, he applauded NASACAR’s efforts to cast a wider net through drivers such as Danica Patrick, whose strong showing at Daytona overshadowed the race itself won by Jimmie Johnson. The media coverage attending Patrick, said Smith, “clearly demonstrates the tremendous long-term marketing potential of the many sizeable and largely untapped demographics in NASCAR racing.”
The NRA crowd is hardly an untapped audience, but Smith’s and NASCAR’s more basic issue isn’t politics but finance. SMI’s revenues fell 3% last year to $490.2 million. So Smith has to fish where the fish are. Industrywide attendance has been lagging since the economic meltdown and sponsorships have gone begging, even for top drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Although Smith is a Republican, he may be as much practical businessman as doctrinaire believer. He has contributed to Democratic candidates and reportedly gets along well with Kentucky’s Democratic governor Steve Beshear, for one. And since last year’s race sponsor, Samsung Mobile, didn’t re-up, when the NRA stepped up Smith took the money. Fittingly, the tradition at the Texas 500 is for the winning driver to don a cowboy hat and fire a couple of six shooters into the air.