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Texas Motor Speedway’s Showman

Eddie Gossage, CEO of the racetrack, pulls out all the stops in the battle for Dallas-Fort Worth’s entertainment dollar.
By Art Stricklin |
photography by Bud Force

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 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.