What’s Behind the NASCAR-NRA Marriage?

With NRA sponsorship, NASCAR feeds its base at the risk of alienating potential new fans.

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Tom Pennington / Getty Images

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 4, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas.

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.

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