FORT WORTH, Texas — The National Rifle Association should feel at home sponsoring Saturday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, the NRA 500.
The Sprint Cup Series pole winner is traditionally presented with a rifle, and the race winner fires a pair of six-shooters loaded with blanks in Victory Lane.
But when the Texas 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 spokesman David Higdon said Thursday that shouldn’t be the case.
“NASCAR has no official position on the gun rights debate,” he said. “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.
On Wednesday, Murphy sent a letter to News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch, asking that his Fox network not broadcast 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.
Issue-oriented sponsorships are not new in NASCAR. Political campaigns have sponsored teams in the past, although they are not allowed to use slogans on the cars.
A difficult economy plays a role, too. Teams and tracks look hard for sponsorship dollars, the lifeblood of the sport.
Clint Bowyer’s team has a one-race sponsorship for Texas from Gander Mountain, and his No. 15 Toyota will feature a decal promoting 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 NASCAR had not faced. Should approval of sponsorships consider the political climate?
Up to now, it hasn’t, but it might in the future, Higdon said.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” he 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.”