He has staged the most outrageous pranks in the name of gaining publicity. He’s persuaded everyone from stunt daredevils, a world-class pianist, and a former president of the United States to help flog his business.
But Eddie Gossage, president and CEO of Texas Motor Speedway in far north Fort Worth, says the “real Eddie Gossage” is someone who enjoys a midnight glass of milk and a peanut-butter sandwich with his wife Melinda after one of his lavish race-weekend productions.
Although Gossage, 52, claims to be a quiet and boring guy most of the time, his better-known, fun-loving alter ego has turned the 1,500-acre, $250 million TMS into one of Dallas-Fort Worth’s most underrated sports success stories, annually making millions of dollars for its owner, Charlotte, N.C.-based Speedway Motorsports Inc.
The ever-present, ever-creative, ever-outrageous Gossage has been the over-sized local face of NASCAR—short for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing—since the North Texas track opened in 1997. He’s constantly battled local media for attention and waged his own successful battle with blood cancer two years ago, all while balancing the loyalties of hard-core, blue-collar fans on the one hand and big-spending, high-end sponsors and spectators on the other.
“The last of the old-school promoters?” Gossage repeats, when asked about the nickname given him by fans, drivers, and sponsors. “I guess that’s me. If I knew another way to do it, I probably would. But the only way to do it is Don King-style,” he says, referring to the famous boxing promoter. “It’s more fun that way, and we’re in the fun business.”
That means no promotional stunt, gimmick, or headline before, during, or after the race is too outrageous for Gossage’s taste or imagination. “I tend to think in color, which is beneficial,” he says, “but I don’t sleep well because I can’t ever turn off my brain. I’m always thinking of something.”
Veteran race car journalist Terry Blount says there’s a method to Gossage’s promotional madness. “Eddie is crazy on purpose, because he gets it, he knows the market,” Blount says. “He knows the Dallas Cowboys are always going to be No. 1 here, and he has to find a way to battle that. Every crazy product he comes up with draws attention to his speedway, and it’s still a battle to this day.”
A classic bit of Gossage promotional artistry took place in 2010, when he offered local radio personality Terry Dorsey $100,000 to change his name to TexasMotorSpeedway.com and tattoo his body with the new name.
Gossage had TMS Vice President Mike Zizzo issue a press release on official track stationery detailing the offer, and later announced that the offer had been accepted. After reaping two days of national and international publicity, Gossage issued another release saying the whole thing was just a prank, and he was sorry for any trouble he might have caused.
“But I’m not apologetic about it. Just because you made a mistake to believe me, that’s not my fault,” Gossage says. “Like the boxing promoter Bob Arum once said, ‘Yesterday I was lying; today I am telling the truth.’ ”
Kyle Petty, a member of stock-car racing’s famous Petty family, says Gossage has never lost his fan’s true love for racing, or fell victim to the problems that have dealt the once-fast-growing sport a few recession-era tailspins.
“We got so big, so fast, that people adopted a, ‘Build it and they will come’ model. But Eddie never did that,” Petty says. “He said, ‘First we’re going to build it; then we’re going to tell you we built it; then we’re going to tell you what we have here.’ ”
Financial figures for the 2010 fiscal year and attendance figures for the recently completed 2011 NASCAR season confirm the success of Gossage’s free-wheeling ways. Of the 14 stock-car tracks that staged two races at their facilities in 2011, Texas Motor Speedway had the highest total attendance—at 314,000—for events in April and November.
It’s an impressive record, especially in tough economic times. Perhaps no professional sport has been hit harder by the recession than NASCAR, which is hugely sponsor-dependent, counting on fans to drive long distances for race weekends.
Even the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway has lost nearly half its NASCAR crowds in the last five years. And Homestead Speedway, which hosted the final, climactic race of the 2011 season in Miami, attracted just 73,000 people for that date.
In the 15 years that it’s been open, TMS under Gossage has never drawn fewer than 150,000 fans for a non-weather-delayed NASCAR cup race. That’s something few other tracks can say.
“In a difficult economic environment for racing, Eddie put more butts in seats than anybody,” says 2011 NASCAR Cup winner Tony Stewart, who shares Gossage’s combustible personality and has come to appreciate his antics.
“I think all drivers kind of rolled their eyes about his promotional stunts over the years,” Stewart goes on. “But once I got my own small tracks and saw what he was trying to do, I became a big admirer.”
Adds driver Matt Kenseth: “There is no doubt that selling a ticket to a NASCAR event is a lot tougher than it was six or seven years ago. But Eddie is the best at it.”
Financial results for the publicly traded Speedway Motorsports, the parent company of TMS and seven other NASCAR tracks, show a profit of more than $44 million in 2010, after a loss of $10 million the year before. While figures for individual tracks are not broken out, TMS is said to be the largest and most lucrative of the SMC tracks, with the most luxury boxes and prime seats.
Gossage says that his track, accommodating 200,000 fans on previously barren farm land near Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport development, is among the most profitable. “We outpaced International Speedway Corp. all by ourselves last year,” Gossage says, referring to a rival company based in Florida. “We’re doing good now. Really good.”
‘Options for Everybody’
Gossage grew up poor, the son of a box-car loader in Nashville. He began working in the industry at a small race-car track as a teenager, then graduated from Middle Tennessee State with a journalism degree.
He worked for Bruton Smith, the legendary founder of Speedway Motorsports in Charlotte, as a public relations director in the early 1990s. Gossage was 38 when Smith tapped him to head up the still-to-be constructed Texas Motor Speedway in North Texas.
“His forte was PR, and I needed somebody to market the product in Texas,” Smith says of Gossage. “He was taking care of the home front for me. I already had architects and accountants and businesspeople, but what I needed was promotion.”
Gossage was more than just an off-the-wall showman with a lot of ideas and no execution, however. He says he graduated “from the Promotional School of Bruton Smith,” an audacious businessman who was so successful, his Speedway Motorsports became the first motorsports company ever to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange.Gossage traveled to Las Vegas and St. Louis to scout potential track sites, locations that Smith decided eventually not to pursue. Then Gossage made his first-ever trip to Texas in 1994, with Smith, to meet businessman Ross Perot Jr., who owned about 1,000 acres of the land the company was considering for a track here.
The first time they took to the North Texas skies in Perot’s helicopter to see the acreage, they knew they’d found the right spot.
Gossage declines to reveal the final purchase price for the TMS site, other than to say it was much less than Smith was prepared to spend. He later bragged that his lack of any formal business education or training had gotten the best of Perot: “I went to Middle Tennessee State, in Murfreesboro; Ross went to Vanderbilt [in Nashville]; and let’s just say Middle Tennessee came out pretty good on that one.”
(Perot says that after selling the relatively islolated acreage in a tough economy, “We were tickled to death ... We got a lot more than what we paid for it.”)
The rest of the acreage came from local landowners, trailer parks, and anybody else who had dirt in the area. By early 1995, Gossage had assembled 1,500 acres of land for the track, and the largest auto-racing facility built in America over the last 30 years was under construction in North Texas. Gossage obtained a local land-tax exemption for additional savings.
Another lesson Gossage learned from Smith was the belief that, just because he was overseeing the largest motorsports track in an area that had never seen its likes, people weren’t going to fill the facility for no good reason. Additionally, he had to care equally about the blue-collar backbone of NASCAR—the people who fly their Confederate flags and bring their own beer coolers—as well as the white-collar luxury suite or condo owners who may have never seen such races in person, but who wanted to be in on the action.
“I’ve always thought one of the secrets of our success was that we have options for everybody,” Gossage says. “We have more
luxury-suite seats [13,000] than any sports venue in the world. We also have $20 tickets.
“If you were like me growing up, you could watch [drivers like] Dale Earnhart Jr. and Tony Stewart for $20 with free parking while bringing your own cooler, which was a really important amenity.”
It was so important, in fact, that in TMS’s early years, Gossage declined to sell beer at the concession stands, costing the track tens of thousands of dollars, so that fans would be able to bring in their own coolers. Parking was and still is free, and Gossage says he knows plenty of places people can sneak into the track on race days without paying.
For his white-collar friends, Gossage, prodded by Smith, built a double-decker row of luxury suites. Each one seats 64 fans with prime views, luxury food, and televised replays, for an annual cost of $70,000 to $105,000, depending on the location.
TMS also boasts the nine-story, $50 million Speedway Club. It is located hard by “Turn One” and features marble floors, chef-prepared food, a full workout facility, and a classical pianist on duty at all times. Prices range from $1,500 for non-race-day memberships to $30,000 for lifetime memberships.
“When you walk into the Speedway Club, you feel like you’ve arrived,” Smith says. “We always want our fans to feel like they can ‘move up.’ Maybe you are in the infield and you want to be in the stands [25 to 30 percent of which are controlled by so-called Public Seat Licenses]. Maybe you’re in the stands and you want to be in the suites, maybe in the Speedway Club. That’s when you have arrived.”
If crowds aren’t your thing, blue- or white-collar, Gossage also offers more than 75 one-, two-, or three-bedroom condos with outdoor balconies. The condos are located near Turn Two, range in price from $300,000 to $1 million—and are currently sold out. TMS also has a bank of Class A office space off Turn Two. They are leased for $13 to $18 per square foot to a wide range of North Texas companies.
The attention to all segments of the audience has won over the loyalists who grew up going to NASCAR races. “I’ve been to the traditional places like Daytona and Talladega,” says Tennessee native and TMS ticket holder Mike Barrett of Grapevine. “But going from the Texas Motor Speedway to Talladega is like going from Del Frisco’s to Chick-fil-A.”
Along with the creature comforts, Gossage gives his audience a show and an experience, not merely a race. “When you buy a ticket at Texas, you’re not just getting a seat to sit at for four hours while cars whiz by,” Petty says. Gossage “recognizes that the economy is going to be a burden for many people, but if they can scrape the money together, they’re going to come to Texas and see what’s going to happen next. That’s the Gossage magic. He’s always looking to top himself.”
In addition to offering big-name music concerts over the years, Gossage has hired trapeze artists as well as Robbie Knievel, who jumped a line of cars in the infield. He flew in Van Cliburn to play the national anthem, and had former President George W. Bush wave the starting flags. He also arranged for helicopter-transport planes to swoop down over the infield to deliver the pace car, a personal Gossage favorite.
“I had one of my sponsors ask me why I didn’t tell him in advance. I don’t have to share all of my plans with everybody,” he says with a laugh. “You can sell and promote a race a lot of ways. A lot of people who come to this track are struggling. So you might as well smile and laugh while you are at the races and make it memorable.”
To cope with the challenging economy, Gossage has cut back on all of his race-day staff. He also dropped one energy provider and picked up GDF Suez Energy North America at a much lower cost, and pared back on some landscaping services.
But he has not laid off a single full-time TMS employee. This is the result of a vow he made to himself from his days working at a brewing company, when a consultant proposed a 15 percent layoff, separating Gossage from some of his closest friends.
Although he has avoided some personally hard decisions, Gossage admits he still struggles as the North Texas face of a publicly traded corporation (stock symbol TRK), which measures results in quarterly earnings, not the amazingness of your latest promotional stunt.
“Being a promoter is contrary to Wall Street,” he says. “We talk in hyperbole; they talk in facts. Before the race, our general counsel reminds me what I can’t say, this and that, and when I say those things, he reminds me again. I tell him, ‘Bruton says you lawyers are just
people who we paid to give us an opinion we don’t have to listen to.’ ”
Midway through his second decade at Texas Motor Speedway, North Texas’ CEO of Speed promises to keep entertaining, to keep promoting, and to keep making money in the area’s largest sports venue.
“I once had a journalist tell me, ‘You’ve never really done anything until you’ve worked with an elephant,’ ” Gossage says, mulling over his latest promotional brainstorm. “We’ve already had a monkey selling programs, but a real elephant, wow. We could have him on pit row, step on a couple of cars. It would be great!”