Commentary

Texas' Gossage keeps it unreal

Updated: April 8, 2011, 2:26 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

"Bob Arum, the great boxing promoter, is in a bar and he's talking about this kid he's got, best fighter going. One of the sports writers says, 'Hold it, hold it, Bob. Yesterday you said that guy you were talking about yesterday was the best fighter going.'

"And Arum says, 'Look, yesterday I was lying. Today I'm telling the truth.'"
-- Eddie Gossage

The frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett, upon his angry departure from Tennessee after losing the 1834 congressional election, reportedly told the locals, "Y'all can go to hell. I'm going to Texas."

I bring this up because I felt compelled to ask Honest Eddie Gossage, the inimitable president of Texas Motor Speedway -- and not inconceivable candidate for president of the United States from the far right -- whether he made such a remark upon his own departure from his native Tennessee.

"No, no, I still have family there," he demurred on the phone recently. But he couldn't resist: "It's a great line. I'm sure I told some people that."

I had to ask because Honest Eddie had pointed out the importance of Tennessee émigrés to Texas' history -- e.g., more defenders of the Alamo were from Tennessee than anywhere else.

Just think, Crockett at the Alamo, Gossage at TMS. Gives you goose bumps, doesn't it?

Gossage might not own a musket called Old Betsy, but he does acknowledge packing a semi-automatic pistol -- often two, one of them his treasured Coyote Special.

To borrow from Sandra Bullock in the movie "The Blind Side," is Gossage "always packin' "?

"Not always a gun -- most of the time, but not always," he said. "Other times, I'm packing an opinion or an attitude."

Those opinions and attitudes -- "There are times when I scare myself with how far right I am" -- have made him a darling of Texas tea partyers, largely via his Internet philosophizing.

Those of us who have known Gossage for any time at all -- and I've known him for a good 25 years -- sense that he harbors political ambitions.

"I would never run for office -- I'm too honest," he said. "I'm a race promoter."

Now you talk about a mouthful of irony…

Pressed as to how many politicians deny their ambitions and claim to be political outsiders, right up until they announce their candidacy, Gossage reiterated, "I'm honest! I'm honest!"

Thus my new nickname for him, Honest Eddie.

C'mon. What about governor of Texas?

"I've got higher aspirations in life than that," he said.

What, then? Senator? President of the United States?

"Well, I mean, if the guy running the baseball team across town [former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush] could become president, why couldn't I?" he said.

"I've got some of his staff that worked over there, and they work for us now. So … you know. … No, I'm just kidding. I shouldn't even joke like that."

Twenty-five years, and still I'm rarely sure when Honest Eddie is joking and when he isn't.

He did issue this disclaimer: "I don't believe anything I say."

Including, logic would follow, that he will never run for office.

How, you might wonder by now, did this bizarre conversation come up?

Gossage, as you may have noticed by his ubiquitous mention all over the media, as often as he can get it, is no blushing wallflower. He is the most cited executive in auto racing, at least since Indy prince Tony George fell from grace.

I don't recall seeing Gossage walk the grounds of his racetrack without at least a gaggle of Dallas-Fort Worth media swirling around him, all but wagging their tails. Nor do I recall turning on a local Metroplex newscast on a Texas race weekend without seeing Gossage's face, surrounded by microphones, fill the screen.

So naturally, when Honest Eddie read a column of mine about Auto Club Speedway near Los Angeles entering its 15th season of operation, he emailed me, pressing for equal attention for TMS, which also opened in 1997.

Considering whether we should accommodate Gossage, I looped in our motorsports editor at ESPN.com -- and our resident genuine, certified Texan -- K. Lee Davis.

Volleys of email ensued, during which Honest Eddie answered my political inquiry by writing, "Yes, the Tea Party has been trying to draft me to run for office. Polls indicate I would be a shoo-in. I'm big here."

[+] EnlargeThe Alamo
George Rose/Getty ImagesThe Alamo was full of defenders like Eddie Gossage -- men from Tennessee.

Remember, he doesn't believe what he says. Or so he says.

He admonished us to "remember, both Tea Party types AND Texans carry guns."

To which K. Lee, a third-generation Texan, wrote, point-blank, "Now Eddie, just so we're clear … you're in Texas, but you ain't from Texas."

Honest Eddie, his Texanness challenged, fired back about all the Tennesseans who had ridden to Texas' rescue, especially at the Alamo.

Gossage arrived in 1995, just 159 years behind Crockett, to get TMS completed and rolling. He didn't come directly from Tennessee, but from adventures in Wisconsin and North Carolina.

The Nashville native left Bristol, Tenn., in 1983 and lived in Milwaukee -- he still pronounces it just like the natives do, "Muaukee" -- for six years as a publicist for Miller Brewing.

It was then that I knew Eddie Gossage away from his circusy, carnival-barking phase. Once, in 1988, I sat with him for hours in a hospital waiting room in Allentown, Pa. Next door, in intensive care, Miller's top driver of the time, Bobby Allison, lay comatose, near death.

That was before cell phones were common, so Eddie manned a pay phone in the waiting room. It rang incessantly, not just from people seeking information but from people seeking opportunity -- seeking a ride for themselves or their relatives as a replacement driver while Allison lay critical.

Gossage answered all of those calls tactfully and calmly. He never betrayed anything remotely approaching outrage.

Allison survived. Gossage moved on to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he was mentored by none other than the original ringmaster promoter of NASCAR racing, Howard Augustine "Humpy" Wheeler.

Candid modern historians tell us that such Alamo heroes as Crockett, South Carolina lawyer Bill Travis and Kentucky-born, Louisiana-toughened knife fighter Jim Bowie weren't in Texas to spread the democratic ideal so much as to seek land and fortunes for themselves.

Honest Eddie had higher aspirations, of course, than being Charlotte's top publicist, so when track mogul Bruton Smith began building Texas Motor Speedway, Gossage was "GTT."

"GTT" was what 19th-century émigrés from the Southeast painted on their barns to let neighbors know why they'd vacated their farms -- "Gone to Texas."

Like Crockett, Gossage found himself in a bit of a jam when he got there.

The configuration of the new TMS track drew howls from the top NASCAR drivers, Dale Earnhardt being the loudest. The track was all catawampus -- dipsy-doodle transitions into and out of the turns, straightaways that narrowed so that packs of cars were funneled into wrecking wads, and walls that jutted out into the fastest groove.

The rumor spread that Gossage must have designed the thing on a bar napkin.

"No, to the contrary. … Truth is, far too many learned people designed Texas Motor Speedway," Gossage said, looking back. "Everybody kept telling you that you had to have all these engineers and geotechnical engineers and hydraulic engineers and all that."

Then, just before that first race weekend in '97, there came a Texas frog choker rife with tornadoes dancing around the ground of the track.

Most of the parking lots remained unpaved and turned into unusable quagmire. On race day, the region north of Fort Worth looked like Woodstock re-enacted, with cars parked every which way in the medians of I-35W and Texas 114 from the airport shut down entirely and used as an emergency parking lot.

As drivers met behind close doors to decide whether they would race at all, I asked NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. whether it reminded him of the last time NASCAR had christened a new track.

"You mean Talladega?" he said, knowing I referred to the driver boycott there in 1969. "Not yet." But as he walked away, he said over his shoulder, "But then, it's not Sunday yet, either."

The drivers drove in a wreck-fest of a race, after Ricky Craven had suffered what would turn out to be career-dampening injuries in practice, in that then-diabolical fourth turn.

By the next year, the track configuration had been adjusted some, and it would be adjusted some more later. But drivers kept grousing about the track. Then there appeared a T-shirt on the grounds that mightily miffed NASCAR officials. Bearing both the NASCAR and TMS logos, the T-shirt read, "Shut up and Drive."

A furious France flew in on racing morning, only to find that the track surface had "weepers" -- virtually incurable little springs of water coming up through the asphalt.

I was standing with France in the garage area when a Metroplex TV crew dropped a boom microphone in front of his face and a reporter yelled a question as to whether Texas would get a second Cup date annually, as Gossage and Smith were demanding.

"A second race? Hell, we're trying to decide whether we're gonna come back here at all," France growled.

On the subject of the T-shirt, Gossage maintained he had no knowledge of the mischievous merchandise.

"Gossage said he didn't know about it," France grumbled. "If he'd been working for me, I'da fired his ass. Not knowing -- and him running this goddamn place."

Late in the race, as the water kept trickling out of the weepers in Turns 1 and 2, Richard Childress warned Earnhardt to watch out for it. Earnhardt gruffly pointed out he was already driving a mostly wrecked car from the mess and that "If we were running Wilkesboro like we're supposed to [that's the race date Texas took], we'd be home by now."

It surely seemed that Smith's pleasure palace, for all its helicopter pads and luxury suites, was NASCAR's newest and grandest white elephant.

As for the T-shirt, Gossage still maintains that it was NASCAR-licensed and that it was only France who didn't know about the "Shut Up and Drive" shirt sold by his own marketing people to the various tracks. It just so happened the line took on a different meaning, considering events at Texas.

By dredging up those tempestuous beginnings, "You've just ruined tens of thousands of dollars I've spent in therapy since those first couple of years, just trying to forget," Gossage said.

Seriously?

"No, I'm not serious at all," he said.

With Honest Eddie, you just never know.

A major point in his email appeal for TMS entering its 15th season was that "I'm still here."

That meant more than just survival on the job. In recent years, Gossage has fought off cancer, timing his treatment for the offseason so he wouldn't have to appear in public with his hair falling out … and wouldn't have to tell people 'til he was ready.

He's still there.

A NASCAR-wide downturn in attendance in recent years has not spared Texas. But Gossage has held his own. By NASCAR's own estimates (though I've never seen a NASCAR crowd estimate that wasn't overly optimistic) TMS has never drawn fewer than 156,000 spectators, except for last April's rain-postponed race, which drew an estimated 92,200 on a Monday.

[+] EnlargeEddie Gossage
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesEddie Gossage doesn't just promote Texas Motor Speedway, he does it with a vengeance.

And so, Gossage makes no apology for his methods.

"I don't know how to promote races other than to be almost the carnival barker," he said. "That kind of fits. Texans are big and loud and drive those big cars with bull horns on the front of 'em and cowboy hats on and shoot their six-shooters in the air and stuff like that.

"So being big and bold and brash, that kind of fits."

Then the man who says he doesn't believe what he says added, "The truth is that stereotype is not totally accurate."

Yet Honest Eddie, his Texanness challenged by Fort Worth's own K. Lee Davis, fired back via email:

"But I AM very conservative (you'll find me to the right of the Tea Partiers) and I AM wearing TWO guns. Right now. In my drawers. And I'm going to the shooting range Sunday. AFTER church. Yeah … I could win public office here in Texas …"

After his friend Rick Perry, governor of Texas, shot a coyote that attacked his dog on a jogging trail a couple of years ago, firearms manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. put out a special limited edition of the gun Perry used.

It's a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol called a Coyote Special. Gossage's wife, Melinda, gave him one this past Father's Day.

"You couldn't buy one," Gossage bragged to me. "Only people who live in the state of Texas can buy one."

Under Gossage, there has always been an "official firearm of Texas Motor Speedway" by sponsorship contract. First it was Beretta and now it's Turnbull, which makes the shotguns he gives to pole-winning drivers and the six-shooters he gives to race winners.

Last April, Honest Eddie announced he had agreed to pay a local radio personality $100,000 to change his name to TexasMotorSpeedway.com for a year. The media bit so hard and got so miffed when they learned it was an April Fools' joke that he issued an apology.

This past Friday, April 1, the TMS public relations department sent out a statement from Gossage, an apology for yet another "annual April Fools' Day joke."

The statement read:

"After last year's April Fools' joke became an embarrassment for news organizations on a national level, you would think I would have learned my lesson. While I thought this year's joke was much tamer, it apparently has touched a nerve for many.

"I want to apologize to the Synchronized Swimming Association of America, fitness personality Richard Simmons, koala bear fans and the people of Belize. I especially want to thank Vinai Thummalapally, the U.S. Ambassador to Belize, for his wise counsel.

"We're working hard to prepare for next Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500 and I simply didn't fully consider the impact of my joke."

The press release ended with, "Note -- Due to the nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Belize, Gossage has reached an agreement with the Department of State to make no further comment."

Gossage? No further comment? No way.

Besides, some colleagues and I just couldn't find any media account whatsoever of the original "joke" for which Gossage was apologizing this time.

"Well, we were able to keep a lid on it," he claimed on the phone. "The State Department wasn't pleased about it."

Now wait a minute, I said. Might the April Fools' joke this time be that there was no April Fools' joke?

Caught red-handed and forked-tongued, Honest Eddie snickered.

"Ah, you would be correct, Mr. Hinton," he said. "People were so upset that we did something last year. And so I thought, OK, this year we won't do anything. It's the punch line to the joke you didn't hear."

And then Honest Eddie told "my favorite deal" -- race-promoter-ese for his favorite story.

"Bob Arum, the great boxing promoter, is in a bar and he's talking about this kid he's got, best fighter going. One of the sports writers says, 'Hold it, hold it, Bob. Yesterday you said that guy you were talking about yesterday was the best fighter going.'

"And Arum says, 'Look, yesterday I was lying. Today I'm telling the truth.' "

Could be a politician talking.

Should Honest Eddie ever run for office, and lose, he could always stand on the Tarrant County Courthouse steps in Fort Worth and proclaim, "Y'all can go to hell. I'm going back to Tennessee."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.