"NASCAR dad" became a political term of art during the 2004 US Presidential elections. A counterpart to the "soccer moms" throughout the country — culturally liberal, middle-class-to-affluent, worried about education and terrorism — NASCAR dads worried about rising taxes, immigration, and a declining base of blue-collar jobs. NASCAR dads can be found all over the country and all over the political spectrum, but embrace cultural signifiers more common to political conservatives and the American South, including auto racing, and often, gun ownership. But NASCAR's relationship with the National Rifle Association has generally been at the level of cultural affinity rather than direct alliance.
The NRA would like to change that. On Monday, NASCAR announced that the NRA would act as the title sponsor for its second NASCAR race. The Texas 500 — until recently, the Samsung Mobile 500 — part of NASCAR's top racing series the Sprint Cup, will be renamed the NRA 500 this April. Sports Business Journal reported that such sponsorships typically run in the high six- to low seven-figure range. Samsung, the race's sponsor since 2002, elected not to renew its sponsorship, according to The Sporting News. The NRA's sponsorship agreement with Texas Motor Speedway runs for one year with an option to renew; NASCAR has final approval of all sponsorship deals on its circuits.
After supporting Sandy Hook at Daytona, NASCAR buddies up with the NRA in Texas
The NRA's sponsorship of NASCAR's Texas 500 comes at an uncomfortable moment for both organizations. After the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA briefly retreated from public view, before roaring back with a seemingly-unhinged defense from its executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre. LaPierre has blamed popular video games, books, and movies for creating a culture of violence in America — but crucially, not crash-filled racing events that intermittently cause injury and death for everyone from drivers to spectators. Meanwhile, NASCAR, which co-sponsored Michael Waltrip's Sandy Hook School Support Toyota car at Daytona in honor of the elementary school students killed by a man with an assault rifle in Newtown, is now in bed with the leading defender of gun rights in the world.
"The NRA 500 is the latest announcement in the long history of a growing partnership between the NRA, Speedway Motorsports, and the NASCAR community," LaPierre said in a video announcement on Monday. "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! On April 13, we'll all come together at Texas Motor Speedway."
"NRA members and NASCAR fans love their country and everything that is good and right about America."
The NRA also acts as the title sponsor for the NRA American Warrior 300 in Atlanta, a lower-profile event in NASCAR's Nationwide circuit. The NRA took over sponsorship of that race from the Great Clips haircutting chain, and before that, Degree anti-perspirant and Nicorette nicotine gum. And NASCAR is no stranger to partnerships with controversial industries: before it became the Nextel and then the Sprint Cup, cigarette maker RJ Reynolds sponsored the Winston Cup for more than 30 years. Eventually, however, NASCAR moved on, severing its relationship with RJ Reynolds in 2002 and then with the industry completely after the US government closed the loophole permitting tobacco advertising on television through sports sponsorships in 2010.
Are big guns the new big tobacco?
The NRA is also a longtime advertising partner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the corporation that owns the Texas Motor Speedway. (Texas state law does not permit concealed weapons to be carried at sporting events unrelated to firearms. The NRA is currently pushing to end the ban on concealed weapons at Texas colleges and universities.) Its chairman Bruton Smith, praised the NRA and said the pro-gun organization's sponsorship of the NASCAR race likely wouldn't cause controversy. "It's not a touchy issue at all," Smith told ESPN.com. "We're at Texas. I guess if you want to find any state in the United States that is pro guns, Texas would be it. You have more hunters per capita in Texas than any place I know."
But if the state of Texas and NASCAR fans were already unequivocally in the NRA's camp, why would it be spending somewhere around a million dollars to sponsor an event there? Does the NRA need to shore up its base, or do members of the organization think NASCAR dads are now back in play? Is the NRA banking that after Sandy Hook, like so many other times, a reflexive cultural identification with largely imaginary fears of gun seizure and traditions of gun ownership can forestall political reform? Is money for NASCAR races suddenly more appealing now because money spent trying to influence political elections has become so much less effective? Is this an ordinary and unremarkable sponsorship? Or is it a desperate act of an organization with more money from the gun industry than real grassroots support?