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Leave politics at the gate, please

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Among my assignments during the 2003 Masters was to follow the protest organized by feminist activist Martha Burk about a half mile from the main gate of the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.

Burk was trying to force the all-male membership of the golf course to open its doors to women. She was using the most prestigious sporting event in golf as a political platform.

As it turned out, there were more reporters and police officers on the piece of land she was provided to protest than actual protestors, who numbered about 40 by one account. It turned into a three-ring circus that included an Elvis impersonator, an inflatable pig and a man wearing a tuxedo holding up a sign that read "Formal Protest."

There were almost as many people protesting the protest as there were protestors.

The golf tournament went on without disruption. Fans poured through the gates in record numbers to watch Tiger Woods go after a third straight green jacket and fourth in seven years. It didn't happen. Mike Weir won in a one-hole playoff over Len Mattiace, becoming the first Canadian and first left-hander to win the tournament.

It was still a great show.

This is my roundabout way of saying fans didn't lose sight that this was still a golf tournament.

This should be the case for Saturday's Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway as well.

If you don't plan to watch or attend because you thought last year's race was boring, that's your prerogative. If you don't plan to watch or attend because you're making it a personal protest against the National Rifle Association being the title sponsor, as some of you have suggested via email or Twitter, think about what you might miss.

Now, don't be fooled. No doubt the NRA is using this weekend's race at TMS to bring light to its political agenda. Still, that shouldn't threaten your right to watch the race.

Sports and politics shouldn't be mixed.

It happens from time to time. No moment stands out more than when the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan.

Politicians often attend sporting events during campaigns because they present an opportunity to be visible in huge crowds.

In the case of Saturday's race, Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy occurred last year in Newtown, sent a letter to NASCAR asking the governing body to drop the NRA as the title sponsor.

Murphy wrote that "NASCAR has crossed the line," that whether it was the intention or not fans will "infer from this sponsorship that NASCAR and the NRA are allies in the current legislative debate over gun violence."

Murphy upped the ante when he wrote to News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch asking the Fox network not to broadcast the race because of the sponsorship.

Bringing the NRA into the mix, for the record, was not a NASCAR decision. It was a track decision. NASCAR does have the right to disapprove of a sponsorship and plans to take a closer look at its approval process in the future because of this situation.

But as NASCAR spokesman David Higdon told me, "NASCAR has no official position on the gun rights debate."

"Our fans, racing teams and industry partners come from all walks of life and thus have varying points of views and opinions," he said. "As a sport, we are in the business of bringing people together for entertainment, not political debate."

As it should be.

Sporting events are where people go to get away from the politics of everyday life. They are where people go to be dazzled with amazing feats of athleticism and heroics, to be entertained by competitors who can do things they only wish they could.

This, as TMS president Eddie Gossage has preached since announcing the title sponsor that will bring seven digits of income to his facility, isn't a gun rally.

"It's going to be a race," he said.

Was the timing poor? In the wake of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, in the wake of Michael Waltrip driving a Sandy Hook School Support Fund paint scheme in the Daytona 500 for Swan Racing as part of a joint project with NASCAR, yes.

But when all is said and done, this ultimately will be just a race. Most fans will make the decision to attend or watch because of their position on racing, to see whether Joey Logano and Tony Stewart will reignite their feud from California, whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. can win or whether Danica Patrick can follow up on her amazing performance at Martinsville.

Nothing more.

Lines don't need to be blurred because of a title sponsor any more than they should be blurred because of a car sponsor, such as the one that will be on Clint Bowyer's car.

In case you missed it, Gander Mountain announced last week that it is launching a "With Rights Comes Responsibility: Secure Your Firearms" campaign on Bowyer's Michael Waltrip Racing car at Texas. Waltrip, because of the relationship he has developed with the Newtown community from the Daytona car, went out of his way to make sure this wouldn't be offensive to town officials.

NASCAR went out of its way to make sure it wasn't offensive before approving it.

Newtown city officials and first responders to the shooting support the paint scheme, understanding it is a message of responsibility and not a political statement.

"The message of personal responsibility and security is a very positive one," Waltrip said.

Race teams use sponsors to deliver positive messages all the time. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray carried a "Race with Insulin" paint scheme last weekend. Jeff Gordon's primary sponsor for much of the year is "Drive to End Hunger" in conjunction with the AARP.

Fans don't skip races based on what's on the hood. There's no reason to skip a race because of the title sponsor, even one with such an obvious agenda.

It's why Gossage opted to continue with the tradition of having the winner fire six-shooters with blanks in Victory Lane. The driver is not making a political statement on guns there any more than he is making a political statement against driving safety when he does a burnout.

He's celebrating a win.

Maybe there will be a protest at TMS this weekend. There certainly will be a circus. There always is at an event promoted by Gossage. He brought a monkey to the media center a few years ago and dubbed the race in November a "Wild Asphalt Circus," with a carnival atmosphere that included a Tony Stewart helmet toss.

Maybe an Elvis impersonator will show up for this one.

But you shouldn't miss it because of political ties.

It's just a race.