I love saying this: “NASCAR is to Americans what Formula 1 is to the rest of the world.”
Very few people pay any attention to F1 within the US but NASCAR is hugely popular – the biggest spectator sport in the country if not the entire globe – and thanks to cable TV and a slew of magazines, the drivers are huge stars.
It’s my new guilty secret: I think it’s rather fun, too.
You have to understand – in theory you can buy the ordinary versions of the NASCAR racing cars from any showroom across America. So if you too had the money and the skill set, you too could make them run at over 300km an hour – that’s what makes NASCAR so appealing to the fans.
This weekend the debate over the rights and wrongs of tougher US gun control laws has invaded the sporting arena.
Just days after President Barack Obama and the families of the Sandy Hook victims appealed for stricter laws, the main pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, was paying a million dollars to sponsor a key NASCAR race in the southern state of Texas – the gun-toting home of cowboys and the original wild west.
The decision by Fox to televise the “NRA 500” at primetime has upset many people in the US.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy tried, publicly at least, to get Fox to halt the broadcast. But hardly anyone in Texas cares – they love NASCAR and for the most part, they love guns.
Business not politics
I’m watching a practice session for NASCAR’S Sprint Challenge Cup at the Texas Motor Speedway at Fort Worth near Dallas.
The organisers of the 500 mile race – about 800km – say business, not politics drove them to accept the NRA’s cash.
Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, said: “NASCAR has no official position on the gun rights debate. They’ve had a relationship with us over many years.”
The NRA’s put money into NASCAR before but never for a signature race – and never at a time when the issue of stricter gun control is being so hotly debated.
The most well-known of all the NASCAR drivers around the world is driver 88 Dale Earnhardt Junior. Standing at the back of his giant trailer rig I asked Dale if he had a message for his fans who might also be gun lovers?
“I like to hunt … and I believe in ownership but I also believe in responsibility,” he said.
Driver number 15 Clint Boyers is taking that message a step further. The painted sign on his car reads “With rights comes responsibility – secure your firearms”.
Clint told me: “Keep them out of [the hands of] – you know – the under-aged, the untrained and the unauthorised – simple as that.”
Not everyone loves guns
Ninety minutes from the TMS track is the aptly named Gun Barrel City, Texas, where I met Linda Mrosko.
She works with Moms Demand Action – a group formed in recent months to lobby for stricter gun control.
Linda has lost eight people to gun violence in her life – all from this area of the country. She says though she wouldn’t protest the NRA’s sponsorship of the car race, she’s far from happy about it.
“Here in Texas we get eight Texans a day who are dying because of guns … why can’t we cut that in half through legislation?” she asks.
Back at the NRA 500 there are approximately 150,000 fans in the stands – many of them families.
They sit side-by-side linked by wires to headphones on which they listen to their favourite driver communicating from the car to the team in the pit lane. The headphones also help defend their ears from the noise of 40+ vehicles screaming round the 3km-circuit at 300 kph.
To be honest the fans seem more concerned about who will win the race than the name of the sponsor on the trophy.
“If you’ve got the money and you can sponsor, that’s what it’s all about – it’s all business,” says one fan. “I think its amazing. Feels like part of my childhood has come to racing. I love it.”
In many parts of the US the NRA’s sponsorship for the Sprint Cup is controversial, but not really in Texas – the state with the country’s most gun shops – and not it seems among NASCAR’s devoted followers.
Tradition has it that the winner of the Sprint Challenge Cup – the one sponsored by the NRA – fires two six-shooters loaded with blanks in celebration of his or her victory.
It’s said the organisers thought about scrapping the ceremony this year out of respect for the victims of Newtown Elementary School and other recent high-profile shootings. But in the end they decided to go ahead anyway.
In Texas and at speedway it seems – some habits die hard.