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Remembering Eddie Gossage, who gave us ‘Shut Up and Drive’ while spreading the racing gospel

News of Eddie Gossage’s death hit like a ton of bricks Thursday night because no one saw it coming.

Which was so unlike one of the best promoters in racing.

The longtime president of Texas Motor Speedway had a special knack for spreading the gospel about the sport he loved, wielding the beguiling flair of a showman who often crossed over the line from colorful bombast into controversial bluster.

Texas’ inaugural race in April 1997 was marred by massive six-hour traffic jams to get in and a major wreckfest at the green flag that had Cup drivers screaming about the track’s design flaws. For Year 2, Gossage commissioned T-shirts that brazenly stated “Shut Up And Drive.”

The concept went over poorly when the 1998 race again produced an infamous pileup (and a reprofiling of the banking), but it also reaffirmed that Gossage shrewdly knew how to make headlines out of big events (with more than 200,000 fans, Texas claimed the largest single-day sports crowd in state history).

The Nashville, Tennessee, native always had something to say from the minute he started his motorsports career in 1980 as the PR director of Nashville International Raceway and quickly rose to an executive role at Bristol International Raceway (now Bristol Motor Speedway).

By 1983, he was managing Miller Brewing Company’s national motorsports PR, building a vast knowledge base across NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars and drag racing that made him extremely well versed (and also very quotable for his wide-ranging insight).

Carrying out the vision of Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler as the vice president of PR at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gossage was instrumental in helping sell “One Hot Night” – the 1992 All-Star event that was the first night race held by NASCAR at a superspeedway (its memorable ending sparked a wave of Saturday night races on the Cup schedule ... and in a PR stunt ahead of the race, Gossage accidentally lit Bruton Smith’s hair on fire).

But it was the nearly quarter-century run in charge of Texas Motor Speedway that cemented Gossage’s reputation for stopping at nothing to stay in the spotlight.

During a 1990s era when NASCAR was bleaching out its rougher edges and fining its stars for shoving each other, Gossage fiercely lobbied to highlight the rivalries that had launched its popularity.

“I think it’s good to show emotion and passion,” Gossage, who once floated setting up a boxing ring for feuding IndyCar drivers Danca Patrick and Dan Wheldon, said. “If you hit someone, that’s wrong, but I’m not sure it’s a terrible thing. There is a difference. It is good for fans to see that Jeff Gordon is not an automaton robot.”

He also loved to embrace the irreverent and quirky appeal of race fans’ passion, especially when it involved April Fools’ Day jokes ... or livestock.

A stuffed goat nicknamed “Lil’ Dale” with a patch of white fur in the shape of Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 … a monkey that hawked souvenir programs … a pair of ponies presented as a retirement gift to Jeff Gordon.

Ffor Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s retirement gift, Gossage rode a “therapy horse” for NASCAR’s most popular driver into the media center. (Tony Stewart, one of Gossage’s favorites, got only a life-sized bobblehead from Texas when he retired.)

Nothing was too outrageous for Gossage to leverage for media attention, and his track could project the message with the world’s largest HD LED video board (affectionately called “Big Hoss” and one of the 1.5-mile track’s many opulent amenities that were standard-bearers for fans).

In August 2010, with NASCAR in an attendance and ratings slump coinciding with the Great Recession, Gossage introduced a “No Limits” campaign “to bridge the gap between the hard-core NASCAR fan that’s a little bit older and the flat bill-wearing, Red Bull-drinking crowd that we need as well.”

It was an edgy needle to thread, and Texas spared little expense trying to execute it. Its first “No Limits” garage show featured a wakeboarding pool, tattoo parlors and chainsaw sculptors. As well as “America’s Sweethearts,” a trio of spokeswomen who essentially were TMS’ answer to the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

“No Limits” was a success but also drew its share of criticism, as did an NRA sponsorship of a 2013 Cup race that brought national scrutiny when announced a few months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Though Gossage was known for his work in NASCAR, there were few bigger allies of IndyCar during some of its most turbulent times. Texas became the circuit’s top destination outside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, playing host to its first night race and holding twice-annual events.

A former newspaperman, Gossage had an appreciation for turning a phrase while also respecting good journalism. On Texas race weekends, he hosted omelet bar breakfasts for sportswriters in a mammoth conference room outside his office on the sixth floor of the Speedway Club above Turns 1 and 2.

Moderating lively conversations that lurched between on and off the record, Gossage liked challenging conventional wisdom while championing his own causes.

The debates were fiery but civil, and Gossage tolerated the opposing viewpoints while never making it personal (though he also rarely shied from replying to insults or taking political stands on social media). After the Charlotte Observer’s late David Poole skewered those “Shut Up and Drive” shirts with a “Shut Up and Fix the Track” column, Gossage contritely thanked Poole for the piece a day later on a national conference call.

As much as he craved the microphone in public, Gossage kept a very low profile in his private life (“I’m a very boring person. A late night for me is 10 o’clock.”) but loved doting on his grandchildren, spending time with his wife, Melinda, and supporting numerous charitable causes.

He died Thursday at 65 from a recurrence of cancer that he quietly had beaten 15 years ago. Aside from a precipitous decline in his recent social postings, there were few clues that he had fallen ill again.

It felt like a jarring goodbye for a man who had so much to say about racing – and whose full-throttle means of expression and care often made racetracks a better place.