At Texas 7 p.m. Saturday (Fox)

NRA 500 puts gun control debate sights on NASCAR

jutter@charlotteobserver.comApril 11, 2013 

— 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 given a rifle, and the race winner fires a pair of six-shooters loaded with blanks in Victory Lane.

But when the 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 has no official position on the gun rights debate,” NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said Thursday. “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 his Fox network not telecast 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.

Nothing new

Issue-oriented sponsorships are not new in NASCAR. Political campaigns have sponsored teams, although they are not allowed to use slogans on the cars.

A difficult economy plays a role, too.

Clint Bowyer’s team, in fact, has a one-race sponsorship for Texas from Gander Mountain, and his No. 15 Toyota will 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.

“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.”

‘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.

“We will honor our contractual obligations to NASCAR,” said Lou D’Ermilio, senior vice president of communications for Fox Sports.

Said reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski: “I can’t speak for everybody, but for myself, I’d like to just stay out of politics and just race. … Sometimes we get thrown into it whether we want to or not.”

Utter: 704-358-5134; Twitter: @jim_utter

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