Fastest Show on Earth
As has been the case many a time in Texas, it all started during a Pat Green song.
While the singer regaled the crowd with his casual, country-fried twang in the infield at Texas Motor Speedway on the night of November 2, 2005, one of his biggest fans was freaking out. The man who built TMS from the ground up and established a reputation as one of the most successful promoters in NASCAR history had a problem. Oh, tickets were selling, sponsors were spending, drivers were smiling, and customers were swaying and singing.
But Eddie Gossage couldn't feel his feet.
"It felt like I was standing on ice," Gossage says. "I was basically numb. If you would have cut off my toes I would have never known it. The only sensation I had was like tiny pins and needles in my feet. And I felt sick to my stomach."
It was neuropathy, a condition in the nervous system that is often a precursor to cancer. "I was diagnosed with that way before any treatment plan, way before I knew I had cancer," Gossage says. "But we know now that was it. The cancer was manifesting itself."
As he sits in the lobby of the Residence Inn hotel just beyond Turn 3 of the Daytona International Speedway two days before NASCAR's season-opening super bowl in mid-February, the president, general manager and founding father of TMS seems uncomfortable with the conversation. He admits that his father died of lung cancer—"He smoked two packs of cigarettes every day starting as a teenager," he says—but refuses to identify the type of cancer that almost killed him in 2009. For once, the P.T. Barnum who brought NASCAR to Texas is short of words.
"Let's talk about something else, something positive," he says. "The Daytona 500 is going to be awesome, and we've got a night race this year at the Great American Speedway. Isn't that more interesting?"
Eventually he relents and says a few things. Gossage, 52, is NASCAR's master marketer, pushing envelopes and putting up obnoxious billboards and anything else it takes to get sports fans to visit his 1,500-acre playground along Interstate 35 in the northern limits of Fort Worth. He expects more than 300,000 fans to attend some or all of this weekend's Samsung Mobile 500. He's kicked cancer's ass. And now, he's back to selling bundles of tickets.
Yep, the man who survived cancer is exactly who you want in charge of resuscitating NASCAR in North Texas.
"Eddie is one of those special people who just got shot out of the womb knowing how to sell, how to promote," says billionaire racing mogul Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns nine tracks, including TMS. "Whatever he does, he injects Eddie into it."
Within a month of getting cold feet at Green's concert, Gossage visited a neurologist. And eventually an oncologist. Three years later he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments to fight the cancer. "Every thought goes through your mind," he says. "But we also caught it very early. Cancer will kill you 100 percent of the time if left untreated. So I'm very fortunate."
While competitor and fellow publicity aficionado Jerry Jones was dominating local headlines with the opening of his Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Gossage was hoping merely to survive. There was a stretch in 2009 where for 48 consecutive days he and wife Melinda trekked 90 miles round-trip from his home on Eagle Mountain Lake in Saginaw to Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas.
"I got a little sick from the chemo, but the worst part of the whole deal was the traffic," he says, smiling.
Truth is, Gossage was as scared as he was annoyed. In 2008, a friend of his died from the same type of cancer. There were sleepless nights and difficult days. "There were a lot of mornings where I'd wake up and get out of bed and really question whether I could make it back to bed that night," Gossage says.
Along with daily chauffeuring duties, Melinda had to monitor everything Gossage ate and drank. She made him swish his medicine in his mouth when he desperately wanted to spit it out. She pushed him—doctors' orders—to brush his teeth seven times a day, each time with a new toothbrush. She took Eddie, the man who never slows down, the man in charge of NASCAR's 200-mph stock cars, on long, slow, leisurely walks.
"God has an amazing ability to let you block out the bad things," Gossage says. "I barely remember the times when I was throwing up and telling Melinda that I couldn't do this any longer. What I do remember is the little things that helped me hang on. Every day I was fascinated at how Hoss and Little Joe were going to get out of their predicament on Bonanza. And going on walks. How nice it was to feel the heat on my body. On my feet. Just spending time with her. I'd never gone on walks before, but now it's one of my favorite things in life."
Melinda, private by nature, declined to be interviewed for this story. And Gossage, the guy who sticks his nose in every corner of NASCAR business, tried for the longest time to hide his disease. He called his right-hand man, TMS assistant GM Kenton Nelson, three times a day. He took part in conference calls. He planned to keep his deteriorating health a secret, but then his hair began falling out in the summer of 2008. Given his abnormal absences from the office and sudden weight loss, there were whispers about Gossage, but no one saw this coming. Before TMS' Indy Racing League event in June 2009, he grudgingly gathered two separate small groups of his inner circle and told them the news, minus specific details: I have cancer.
"It was somber. Solemn," says Kyle Petty, a long-time friend and the son of legendary driver Richard Petty. "It was a reminder that no matter your trophies or your money, in the end all you have is your health. I know guys in Texas are supposed to be all tough, but there was a lot of hugging going on and a lot of tears. Eddie jokes around, but at that moment everybody wanted to make sure he knew he was loved."
Says childhood buddy Michael Dranes, "Eddie was much more composed than we were. He was like, 'I'm gonna lick this thing.' We were devastated. But at the same time no one in that room doubted him. His confidence was unbelievable."
Afterward TMS sent out a press release and Gossage vanished from the limelight he loved, reappearing in time for the fall NASCAR race at TMS in November. "It was the hair thing that sold me out," he says. "Other than that, I thought I could sneak it through without anyone noticing. I thought about just telling everybody that I was pulling my hair out over all the attention Jerry was getting for Cowboys Stadium, but I was kidding myself. I was very, very sick."
Gossage bought a toupee when he re-entered the public eye. When he debuted the look for Nelson, TMS vice president of operations Mat Stolley and media relations director Mike Zizzo, they didn't know whether to bust out laughing or cry. "He looked ridiculous," Nelson says. "I'm still not sure if it was one of his pranks or not, but we finally had to tell him, 'You look like an idiot.' Thankfully, when he went on TV that day, he was wearing a nice TMS cap."
These days Gossage has hair on his head, the trademark full beard on his face, 30 pounds less on his body and only a small scar on his chest as a souvenir from the cancer that, he says, is in remission. He still watches his diet, cherishes his walks and gets a checkup every three months. But for now he is healthy, back to being the promoter who energizes the neon NASCAR sign in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.
As a marketer who delights in April Fools jokes, who outfits girls with chainsaws as part of TMS' three-ring circus and who encourages drivers to throw hissy fits in an attempt to get his races on ESPN's SportsCenter, Gossage is a dying breed. But at least he is not dying.
He has the pedal to the metal these days, going to the Super Bowl and the Grammys and the Daytona 500 and pushing for TMS' first NASCAR night race while finding the time to spoof Charlie Sheen in a YouTube video. Yet the "guy with the crazy promotions and all that energy" is really just a character he plays for his job, he says. Four years facing death have given Eddie Gossage a changed perspective.
"Cancer is a shadow that will chase me the rest of my life," he says. "I get emotional about this. I don't want to die, but my life has already far exceeded my expectations. I want to grow old with my wife. I'm ready for grandkids. But if God wants to take me, I have no regrets at all."
Before Gossage could become Don King in beard and boots, he needed a stage.
He'd eventually customize his own in Fort Worth, but only after finding his passion and role models and a path to happiness—all by sneaking into the night races at Nashville Speedway. With its old-school wooden bleachers, $1 tickets for kids under 14 and NASCAR Winston Cup races on a hot Saturday night, it was the only place to be for a speed-freak kid in the mid-1970s.
With his younger brother Craig and Michael Dranes, Gossage would join the sellout crowds of 17,000 at the historic track on Nashville's Fair Grounds by sneaking through the tunnel reserved for the car-hauling trailers. The reward? No entrance fee and eyes full of his future.
"Eddie was always, let's say, very resourceful," Dranes says. "We'd sneak in to watch Peter Frampton or ZZ Top. Once he picked up a bag of ice, started walking and said 'Follow me.' Next thing I knew we were on the sideline of the Vanderbilt football game."
Says Gossage, "Cars were the baddest and racing was the coolest, and I was just hooked. The intensity. The sounds. That smell of carbon monoxide and rubber burning and gas spilling. I knew there was nowhere I'd rather be than at the track."
But not, curiously, as a driver. "Never," Gossage says when asked if he considered being a driver. "I'm not real smart, but I'm smarter than that. Honestly? I put them on such a high pedestal that there's no way I could come close to doing any of the same things they do."
Gossage's favorite driving, actually, comes atop his motorcycle. Each spring a group that includes Petty and Dranes rides all over the country as part of the "Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America." Typically Eddie, next month's journey from Lake Placid, New York, to Amelia Island, Florida, and likely all the Waffle Houses in between will unofficially be the group's 83rd annual. "Eddie decided we should start with the 99th annual and work backward," Petty says. "Said it gave us some instant credibility."
Knowing he'd never be a driver, Gossage latched on to more reasonable people to mimic. Boxer Muhammad Ali. Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. And—oh yeah—Lanny Hester. He idolized Ali and Evel as extravagant showmen who captivated him on ABC's Wild World of Sports. But it was Hester, the promoter who helped save, improve and immortalize Nashville Speedway, who most influenced Gossage's career.
"I loved Ali and Evel because they were great athletes, but more so because their colorful promotions convinced you that you were watching an event, something special," he says. "But one night I saw Lanny walking through the stands in Nashville. He had on a suit. He had a microphone. He was carrying a trophy. And he was headed down on the track. I wanted to be him. Still do to this day."
Gossage attended a conservative Christian private school where he met Dranes and somehow honed his propagandizing. It was there that he tried to supplement the school's fund-raising pancake breakfast with a pay-per-view fight between seventh-graders in a nearby room. And later he attempted to pull off a Jackass-type stunt featuring a fellow student riding a bicycle down a steep hill behind the school through the gymnasium's double doors, jumping over several trash cans and out the doors at the opposite end.
"Soon as teachers got wind of it they nixed it," Dranes says. "But it didn't faze Eddie. I think they talked to him about trying to be a positive ringleader, but you could tell he was already on to his next scheme by the time they were done. He's always had a lot of P.T. Barnum in him."
Gossage majored in journalism at Middle Tennessee State, where he learned the foundation of public relations and—in his words—married foolishly. He started working weekends at Nashville Speedway and in 1980 took a full-time job making $9,000. "I was in heaven," he says. "But I still dreamed of someday making five figures."
From 1981 to 1983 he moved within the same company to a track in Bristol, Tennessee, where he headed a three-man staff. "I've got more secretaries now than I had staff then," he says. He then took a job with Miller Brewing, overseeing what he calls "corporate goobity-gook." He was traveling, entertaining guests at NASCAR races won by drivers such as Bobby Allison and Danny Sullivan. "But every Monday I had to be at my desk at 8," he says.
After six years he'd had enough and in 1989 was hired by Charlotte Motor Speedway, owned by Bruton Smith but run by legendary promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler. Known as a tough old coot to work for, Wheeler made Gossage his 19th public relations director in 18 years.
"He was new, but I could tell right away he was an old-school promoter," says Wheeler, who retired last summer after 33 years. "Unfortunately, there weren't many of him around then and even fewer now. He's been great for NASCAR and racing since his first day on the job."
It was in Bristol and Charlotte that Gossage learned his profession while obliterating the lines of safety and common sense. According to Dranes, he hired a circus trapeze artist to perform stunts on a high-wire above the race crowd, planned a motorcycle jump over a bread truck that ended with the rider leaving the track in a neck brace, and once pondered a jump over a tank of geriatric, toothless sharks that—in the event of failure—would only be able to gnaw the rider. "How nobody's been killed during one of his stunts is a miracle," Dranes says.
While charged first and foremost with selling out races in Charlotte, Gossage got a call one day in 1993 to meet Smith at his private jet for a fact-finding trip to Las Vegas. Gossage was to put together a feasibility study on the merits of building a race track in Sin City. Because of flight capacity, a lack of rental cars and few available hotel rooms in the early '90s, Gossage's answer to Smith was a resounding "no."
"Fine," Smith said. "Let's keep looking. We're going west."
At the time St. Louis seemed attractive. Then came a call for another trip on Smith's jet. This time: Texas.
Hovering over Duncanville in Ross Perot Jr.'s helicopter, the group eyed sufficient space at a prospective site near Interstate 20 and Camp Wisdom Road. Then they headed northwest. And there it was, by Alliance Airport: nothing.
"But it was a gloriously flat nothing, surrounded by I-35 and [State Highway] 114," Gossage says. "I knew the minute I saw it that was the place."
Land pinpointed, Gossage dreamed of finally running his own track. Smith, however, made him wait.
"Back in Charlotte he was like, 'Good job. Put Texas in your rear-view mirror. Go sell out Charlotte.' I was totally bummed," Gossage says.
Just days after Jeff Gordon won the Coca-Cola 600 at a sold-out Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 1994, Gossage was in his office tying up loose ends before Memorial Day weekend when he got a call from Smith.
"Why are you answering this phone?" Smith demanded.
"What?" Gossage replied.
Said Smith before hanging up, "Why aren't you in Texas?"
As Gossage mulled the conversation over the weekend, he got another call from Smith.
"You still here?" he said. "How are you going to run a race track in Texas if you don't live there? Get there. Get there fast. And buy yourself a house. I can't have the man running my track in Texas not to have an appropriate house."
Without knowing where he was going to live or how much his new job would pay, Gossage packed his belongings into a U-Haul.
"I was thrilled, but I called before I left town because I had all these questions," Gossage says. "He listened to all my questions in my panicked voice, then he just said, 'Sorry, I got nothing for ya, son,' and hung up. So I started driving. When I got there I didn't know if I was supposed to buy a house that cost $10,000, $100,000, or $1 million. I just knew I needed to get there."
Once in Fort Worth, Gossage bought a house "somewhere in the middle" of his radical estimations. Told of his new track president's relatively expensive purchase, Smith howled and said, "Good. When you owe a lot it means you'll work a lot."
"He was just testing me," Gossage says. "He wanted to see if I would step off the cliff for him. And when I did he was there to catch me."
Says Smith, "That's just my way. I was letting him know that the track was his."
On November 28, 1994—beating to the punch a Japanese conglomerate's three-year effort to build a track on the same land—Smith announced plans to build a 160,000-seat racetrack that would include 205 luxury suites. In April 1995 there was a ground-breaking pep rally, and on July 6, 1995—after more than a year on the job—Gossage was officially announced as Texas Motor Speedway president and general manager.
"TMS' first phone number was my home phone number," says Gossage, who now works in the high-rise tower overlooking TMS' Turn 2 in an office adorned with more than 50 helmets from the likes of Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, Knievel and even one Tom Cruise wore in Days of Thunder. "My voice mailbox would only hold 20 messages. I'd come home every day and write them down on a notebook beside the phone. It was my fan database right there."
From a humble—make that horrible—debut in 1997 when the first lap of the first race featured a 13-car wreck, and drivers openly criticized everything from the track's configuration to its surface, TMS has grown into one of the best stops in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It's so good that Gossage's lobbying for a second race at TMS was successful. "I'm pretty sure by now I know what fans want," he says.
How good of a promoter is he? This weekend he'll be the face of the Samsung Mobile 500. He'll do interviews and wave the green flag and be in the winner's circle presenting TMS' trademark cowboy boot trophy, complete with six-shooter celebration. All the while knowing that not one ticket was sold to see him, but every ticket was sold by him.
Who better to help save NASCAR than the man who argues that drivers are better athletes than soccer players and who in 1992 almost burned his boss to death?
Gossage had the bright idea to stage a "One Hot Night" promotion at Charlotte, climaxed by Bruton Smith turning on the lights for a highly anticipated and rare night race. But when Smith flipped the switch, sparks ran up the wires and the control box exploded, setting him on fire and sending him to the hospital with mild burns. The scene was featured on nightly newscasts across the country, and Gossage figured it was his last stunt.
"Bruton's in the hospital, but I get a call from him," Gossage says. "I was already packing. I would have fired me."
Smith, however, had just heard from a friend in Hawaii who watched the near-disaster in awe. "I told Eddie he was a genius," Smith says. "There were cameras at the track and the hospital the next day wanting to talk about it. You know how much money it would've cost us to get that kind of exposure?"
After realizing that Smith had only suffered singed eyebrows and burned hair, Gossage sent his boss a get-well present of a fire extinguisher and a card that read, "You took 'One Hot Night' too literal."
"He had a comb-over at the time," Gossage says with a laugh. "So I actually did him a big favor."
Says Smith, "It scared the dickens out of me, but I wasn't hurt at all."
The two have talked by phone every day since. One of the topics is how to redirect NASCAR from a two-year downward spiral in ratings and relevance. After unprecedented growth for a decade, one of the world's most popular sports has become stale and predictable. With restrictor plates and micromanaged "car of tomorrow" conformity and look-alike, sound-alike drivers plastered with sponsorships, it's become difficult for mainstream America to differentiate among NASCAR's top drivers.
"We're in a slump, sure," Gossage says before the Daytona 500. "Fans don't like the car of tomorrow, and I agree with them. We've become a sport with too much homogenization. A Ford should be a Ford and a Chevy should be a Chevy, and they shouldn't be the same. There are so many lap-down rules I can't even keep up with them. We're suffering from over-sponsorfication, and all of our victory lanes sound scripted. We need to get some fire back in our eye."
Petty agrees. "We've become too cookie-cutter and vanilla," he says. "The drivers and cars are so similar that it's difficult to tell the races apart from week to week. That's where a guy like Eddie excels. He makes Texas unique."
From the death of Dale Earnhardt, to the departure from the sport of former racing team owners Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, to the opening of Cowboys Stadium, NASCAR's shine has dulled.
At Daytona the crowds and infield debauchery were visibly diminished from years past. There were still $1.2 million RVs complete with heated marble floors and 100-inch hi-def televisions parked just down an infield road from modest campers perched on the backs of pickup trucks. There were still guys playing horseshoes with toilet seats and traffic cones, and others driving motorized bar stools and using lawn-mower engines to stir giant vats of margaritas. There were still seniors rooting for Junior, beer bellies pouring over blue jeans and enough female ogling to remind you that NASCAR is nothing if not red necks, blue collars, white trash and a sport completely fueled by speed, suds and sex. There was still so much focus on boobs that you'd swear the Sprint Cup was the latest push-up bra. And there was still a feel like you'd stumbled into a mesmerizing mix of the State Fair of Texas midway, Central Park and Mardi Gras.
But by the time the checkered flag waved, NASCAR had something even Eddie Gossage couldn't concoct: a fresh face.
NASCAR doesn't have labor lockouts or guaranteed contracts or players beating on their chests after 4-yard runs. But it does have 20-year-old star Trevor Bayne, who suddenly has the sport back in the lives of a generation obsessed with instant gratification and social networking. On the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt dying in a wreck on Turn 3, Bayne did something four-time defending points champion Jimmie Johnson couldn't—he made NASCAR cool.
At least temporarily. Since Bayne's improbable victory in his first race at Daytona, NASCAR's TV ratings have jumped 35 percent in Texas. Of the 55 metered markets by Nielson, Dallas-Fort Worth ranks No. 8 in NASCAR viewership. When NASCAR needed a boost, Justin Bieber at 200 mph might have just done the trick. Says long-time TV analyst Darrell Waltrip, "That was one big breath of fresh air."
Bayne will be at TMS this weekend. Gossage will handle the rest.
While his old track in Charlotte recently announced it was building an HD video board bigger than Cowboys Stadium's JumboJerry, TMS' president will surely have something up his sleeve for the Samsung Mobile 500. To entertain the nearly 200,000 fans in the stands, 50,000 in the outside campgrounds and approximately 10,000 in the infield amidst the state's largest one-day sporting event, Gossage is staging a concert by 3 Doors Down, converting a 350-foot long garage into a "No Limits" VIP area for season-ticket holders, complete with roller derby, pig races and tattoo artists. He's also trying something brand-new for TMS: a NASCAR night race.
"Cars just look faster at night," Gossage says. "Plus you get the sparks when they touch. It's like when the players seemed to play better and the games were more important on Monday Night Football. Fans are going to dig it."
With his clean bill of health, happy second marriage and two grown children (daughter Jessica and son Dustin), Gossage is at it again, creating headlines, generating revenue and never donning a muzzle in an otherwise buttoned-down, politically correct fraternity of sports owners.
On Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: "Unbelievably smart. And more normal than you'd think." (Says Cuban of Gossage, "Eddie obviously knows his stuff. He is a good guy that eats, sleeps and breathes TMS. Which is why he is so successful.")
On Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: "Great businessman. Who else can charge $75 for parking and have no one squawk about it? By the way, our parking is still free."
On former Rangers owner Tom Hicks: "He's a rich fella who found out that you have to run professional sports like a business, not a toy."
On a call from the National Hockey League about his interest in becoming the sport's commissioner: "It'd be a big step down from what I do now."
In a scaled-back, penny-pinching culture in which Jones has been unable to secure a naming rights partner for Cowboys Stadium, Gossage signed AAA Texas to a seven-figure, five-year deal to sponsor the fall NASCAR race and says overall sales are up 20 percent from 2010. And last August he trumpeted this weekend's night start and changes to this summer's IRL race not with a press release or email but a lavish party for 1,600 sponsors, media and fans at House of Blues that featured a concert by Goo Goo Dolls and a price tag of $500,000. By the end of the night, Gossage said he closed a sponsorship pact that will net TMS $1 million a year.
"Seemed like a lot of money for a party," Smith says. "But he made it profitable. Who am I to argue with Eddie? Look at his success."
Says leading driver Kurt Busch, "Texas is always one of our favorite stops, and Eddie is the reason. He makes it fun."
Gossage, who often boasts that his 1.5-mile track and accompanying facility would engulf four and a half Cowboys Stadiums, is a Saturday Night Live junkie who recently spoofed Sheen, claiming to have "three goddesses" in Great American Sweethearts Stephanie, Becky and Brittany, who officially represent TMS in boots and revealing race uniforms. In past years Gossage has made national headlines by offering drivers $15,000 to throw their helmets in fits of rage, by following a fight involving drivers Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski with a billboard screaming "Have at it, Boys," and by sending out April Fools pranks claiming he was going to dome TMS and offer $100,000 to anyone who would legally change their name to "TexasMotorSpeedway.com." Last week his prank was an apology for his previous pranks, including supposed heartfelt sorries to "...the Synchronized Swimming Association of America, fitness personality Richard Simmons, koala bear fans and the people of Belize."
He's also tried to lure Mario Andretti out of retirement, assembled an all-female pit crew and billed as sideshow attractions a 42-foot fire-breathing, car-eating robot and a motorcycle jump by Evel's son Robbie.
"I'm not the only one who thinks of these ideas," he says. "But I'm one of the few with enough guts to actually try them."
Says Kenton Nelson, a member of Gossage's staff for 16 years, "Working for him is about what you'd think: He's almost impossible to keep up with."
Through four decades in the business, countless laps and one victory over cancer, Gossage's savvy remains simple: Give fans more than a photo finish.
"Not everybody loves all of Eddie's ideas," Petty says, "but everybody loves Eddie. He's passionate. He's tireless. He pushes us to be better. To be bigger. You can talk to every person at every track and not find one who doesn't believe he isn't good for the sport. In a lot of ways he's the face of NASCAR."
As has been the case many a time in Texas, it will all end Sunday with an Eddie Gossage checkered flag.
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