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The ringmaster at TMS: Eddie Gossage

11/16/2010 - NASCAR
Eddie Gossage on his latest campaign at Texas Motor Speedway: "Absolutely, under no circumstances, would I do something that is trashy and in poor taste." Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

CONCORD, N.C. -- Eddie Gossage never pulls punches with his ad campaigns, so there was no reason to pull any when asking about his latest.

"So, how's your 'sex sells' ad campaign going?" the president of Texas Motor Speedway was asked during a recent trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Gossage paused for a brief moment, chuckled and responded, "Boy, you just break it down to the lowest common denominator."

He then proceeded to tell how while doodling ideas this past spring, he came up with his "No Limits" campaign, which cost a half-million dollars and kicked off with scantily clad girls -- otherwise known as the "Great American Sweethearts" -- and a Goo Goo Dolls concert at the House of Blues in Dallas.

He explained that he didn't have the resources to pay for separate campaigns that would reach the young and older demographics, so he considered what the common denominator was between a 20-year-old male who likes hot cars and a 55-year-old who likes hot cars.

A lightbulb came on.

"It's chicks," Gossage said. "That's just the truth."

I blew up a lot of things, but I never tried anything like that. Ultimately, what I found works the best is to sell the racing. But who am I to argue with Eddie?

-- H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler

Gossage arguably is the best race promoter on the planet these days. He finds ways to get attention for his track in a market overwhelmed by the Dallas Cowboys and American League champion Texas Rangers almost 365 days a year.

Sometimes they're controversial. Who will forget his 2008 campaign promoting the strained relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and stepmom Teresa with billboards that eventually were changed at the Earnhardts' request?

Or the April Fools' hoax earlier this year in which Gossage sent out a release saying Dallas disc jockey Terry Dorsey accepted an offer of $100,000 to legally change his name to TexasMotorSpeedway.com?

But nothing has put Gossage into the spotlight more than what he refers to as his "hot cars and hot chicks" campaign. It's marketing that many fellow track presidents are monitoring with ticket sales way off during extremely tough economic times but that few want to comment on.

Several declined to discuss the promotion at all. You can't blame them for being skeptical, because few campaigns at any track have made a major impact, and the cost of this one is way more than what many have on their budget.

There's also concern promoting "hot chicks," although that's been a part of the sport since the first pinup girl appeared in Victory Lane.

"I guess guys will try anything," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who was described as the P.T. Barnum of promoters during his days as president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he recreated famous war battles to attract fans. "I blew up a lot of things, but I never tried anything like that.

"Ultimately, what I found works the best is to sell the racing."

Ultimately, that has to be the solution. Texas has no better product to sell than Sunday's race, which features the closest battle in Chase history with four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson only 14 points up on Denny Hamlin and 38 ahead of Kevin Harvick with three races remaining.

But Gossage began this campaign way before anybody knew this wouldn't be another Johnson runaway. His need to think outside the box has made some in the business uncomfortable. Even Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith was leery of this campaign at first, saying he thought $500,000 "was a lot of money."

"But who am I to argue with Eddie?" said Smith, who writes the checks for TMS. "He is the best."

Pushing the envelope?

Darrell Waltrip stopped by Gossage's temporary workstation at CMS to say hello only to be blindsided by the same abrupt question that Gossage was greeted by earlier.

"Sue Cothran name mean anything?" Gossage asked of the trophy queen at Nashville Speedway in the 1970s.

Waltrip smiled, almost to the point of blushing, and responded, "I knew her very well."

Then the jokes started, prompting the three-time Cup champion and analyst for Fox to add, "I won a lot of trophies."

Gossage's point? There are no new ideas.

"There's just versions of old ideas," he added.

Initial numbers for this idea were encouraging. After the Aug. 17 announcement, TMS saw a 200 percent jump in season-ticket sales compared to the first three weeks of 2009 sales. Gossage expects the final increase in 2011 season-ticket sales to be around 10 to 11 percent. That's good, but overall new sales haven't increased much.

The new "No Limits" products that include skulls, crosses and wings for a younger audience also have provided an economic boost, with 25 percent of the track's daily sales going toward that. Gossage doesn't hesitate to show off the edgy logo on the golf shirt he is wearing.

He's not wearing the edgy T-shirts that have more of an athletic cut.

"I can't wear them," Gossage said with a laugh.

Gossage also can't wear the skimpy outfits picked for Great American Sweethearts Stephanie, Brittany and Becky. The tight, high-riding shorts and midriff-bearing tops leave little to the imagination, thus leading to the "sex sells" premise.

"Absolutely, under no circumstances, would I do something that is trashy and in poor taste," Gossage said. "[The girls are] not going to go anywhere or do anything that is distasteful. They're going to wear more clothes than a college cheerleader.

"But who likes hot cars that doesn't like the girls?"

Gossage described this portion of the campaign with his wife next to him. She's not offended. Gossage said she jokingly suggested the girls should be driven around by a "big, good-looking guy" to attract women fans.

If it works, more power to Gossage. Tracks need to find ways to attract fans, particularly new ones, with ticket sales lagging to the point it's almost a crisis situation. History tells us in general marketing that sex indeed sells but, as most marketers will tell you, only when used in good taste.

Go too far, and it can have a negative impact. So far, that apparently hasn't been the case at TMS, where Gossage says he's gotten less than a dozen complaints, all of which he's personally addressed.

"It got into religious issues with some, and others just thought it was bad taste," Gossage said. "You can't make the spiritual argument to me. ... The prudish argument of this offended me if you're going to write me this bulls--- and then tell me the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are wholesome.

"C'mon."

Investigative journalism

To complete research on this subject, an interview with one of the Great American Sweethearts seemed in order. The instructions were to call Becky at 11 p.m. CT.

Asked which one that was, the response: "the redhead."

You never hear Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch described by the color of their hair, but when in Rome.

Becky started by saying it's not her job to sell sex. She insisted "we're not there to just be pretty girls," that their job is to promote the track and make sure the fans are having fun.

"I'm not going to lie," Becky said. "When they first told me about it I was, 'Oh, what are we going to have to wear?' But we were all on the same page from the get-go. We weren't going to be like cheerleaders. We weren't going to be just sex symbols. This was going to be done with good taste."

Gossage doesn't hesitate to say this is the most successful promotion of his career. He also doesn't hesitate to justify the initial expense, reminding that a $900,000 track sponsor that was on the fence renewed its deal during the kickoff party and another sponsor looking to spend money at another track came on board.

He also said that NASCAR chairman Brian France, standing on stage with him and the girls at the House of Blues, turned and said, "Holy s---, everybody ought to do this."

To be fair, Texas isn't the only track to use hot chicks as part of its marketing. Girls dressed in bikinis are part of a Las Vegas Motor Speedway commercial that will run during the Texas race broadcast. Charlotte Motor Speedway brought girls wearing short dirndl outfits promoting an event at its track.

That's racing now, as it was in the 1960s and '70s, when it was said if you were a race fan and didn't know who Linda Vaughn was, it was time to turn in your card. Vaughn, for the record, was the original "Miss Hurst Golden Shifter," the self-proclaimed "First Lady of Drag Racing".

The girls are just the tip of Gossage's campaign. He will turn the Nationwide Series garage into a party zone Saturday night with a swimming pool the size of a football field for wakeboarding demonstrations. There'll be chain saw-toting girls carving wooden statues, bands, drivers on stage for fan Q-and-A sessions and trampolines on the garage roof for demonstrations.

The idea is to create an atmosphere that will make those in the stands want to buy the package that gets them inside, just as the idea with the girls is to get fans inside the track.

That is the challenge every track president faces.

"It's so difficult to tell what works, to quantify the success of an ad campaign or a particular TV spot or radio or newspaper ad or social networking," Las Vegas track president Chris Powell said. "I'm much more concerned with the state of the economy and that people are much less likely to travel today than the contents of an ad campaign."

Powell has the advantage of selling Las Vegas as a destination. Gossage and many other promoters don't have that option.

But what ultimately should bring fans back to the track is the competition, and a Chase like this one has to help.

Meanwhile, promoters believe they need to push the advertising limits just as crew chiefs push the car limits.

"In this case, I came up with the idea, and [the TMS staff] -- they fleshed it out," Gossage said.

Fleshed. Interesting way to put it.

"I'm telling you," Gossage said, "this is not a 'sex sells' campaign."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.