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NRA can't politicize NASCAR
For the better part of two days, I tried to muster outrage over the National Rifle Association’s sponsorship of a NASCAR race. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it.
NASCAR returns to FOX at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 6 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.
I read and re-read the letter Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA, penned in some gun magazine that called me a “radical journalist” and mischaracterized words I’d spoken inartfully as words I’d written. Nothing. No sustainable outrage.
I thought about the Newtown massacre and racer Michael Waltrip’s beautiful tribute to its victims and how it would all be undermined by the NRA’s politicization of a Sprint Cup race. Nope. No sustainable outrage.
Finally, I contacted one of my best friends from college, a man whose life has been dedicated to auto racing for more than 25 years, a man I thought would surely be enraged by the NRA’s cheap publicity stunt. Sorry. No sustainable outrage.
You know what? It’s just not that big of a deal.
If anything, I see it as a ray of hope that the NRA is badly losing its public relations battle with the sensible people who want to enact laws that make it more difficult for criminals and mentally disturbed people to buy guns.
Do you remember the Virginia Slims Circuit in tennis?
Virginia Slims is a Philip Morris Company invention, a brand of cigarettes marketed to appeal to women in the late 1960s. With the country awakening to the dangers of smoking thanks to the landmark 1964 surgeon general's report on smoking, the tobacco industry went on a public relations offensive.
One of its best PR moves was the Virginia Slims Circuit in the early 1970s. Philip Morris Co. bankrolled Billie Jean King and “The Original 9” in their own tennis league. At the time, female tennis players were grossly underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts. The Original 9 struck out on its own to right that wrong. The women climbed into a business relationship with the tobacco industry to gain a measure of equality.
I bring this up to make the point that sponsoring the “right” cause did not save the tobacco industry from its fate as a social pariah. We still smoke in America. But no sane person thinks it’s cool. In fact, most people think smoking is really, really stupid. Most of us now even hate second-hand smoke. Smokers are looked down upon. Smoking is a weakness no different from overeating and obesity. It’s a bad habit that should be fought.
That’s why Wayne LaPierre reminds me of Lee Garner Jr., the CEO of Lucky Strikes in “Mad Men.” The NRA is the new tobacco industry. The Newtown massacre is the surgeon general’s report on guns. For the first time in our history, we’re awakening to the fact that guns create far more problems than they solve. We’re just now realizing that LaPierre and the NRA have been lying to us about how guns make us safer.
It took decades for us to snap out of the propaganda spell the tobacco industry used. It will likely take decades for us to reach enlightenment about guns. But it’s happening. That’s why the NRA is attempting to shore up its base. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort or savvy to sell guns in Texas. The NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway isn’t preaching to the choir. It’s preaching to the people who are already dead and in heaven.
The winners at Texas Motor Speedway are given six-shooter handguns to fire from Victory Lane. Now, the guns fire blanks, and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage told USA Today this week that he would get input from NASCAR team owners about changing that traditional celebration. Even Gossage can see that a sponsor might say, “I didn’t want that picture. I didn’t want my driver with a gun in his hand.”
I’m telling you, this NRA sponsorship is a sign of trouble for LaPierre. It would be akin to President Obama, back in October, holding political rallies at every Booker T. Washington High School across the country. No self-respecting principal at Booker T. Washington would turn down a presidential rally. And no self-respecting political analyst wouldn’t see the presidential pandering for exactly what it was — desperation.
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My point is I don’t blame NASCAR for accepting the NRA’s money. The handful of people inside Texas Motor Speedway who might disagree with LaPierre and the NRA will have more than enough sense to keep their opinions private — and the controversy might help NASCAR’s TV ratings.
“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 message. “NRA members and NASCAR fans love their country and everything that is good and right about America. We salute our flag, volunteer at our churches and communities, cherish our families, and we love racing.”
Yep, this is the perfect marriage. Sports leagues — all of them — love to delude themselves in faux patriotism. And so do gun lovers. There’s nothing more American than drinking beer, watching sports and killing a defenseless animal with an AR-15 or some other firearm.
Nope. No outrage from me. I’m encouraged by the NRA’s latest ploy.
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