Signaling a changing of the guard, indications that the financial resources to sponsor motor sport may have reached their limits, as many corporate partners are re-evaluating their investments.
As the 2003 season gets under way many a major sponsor has announced an end to what has been long standing relationship.
The first shot was fired as Pennzoil left the World of Outlaws, but this was, as it turned out, only the beginning.
Conoco Phillips (Union 76), which has been a series sponsor in NASCAR recently, restructured its commitment in 2002 by no longer being the series' official motor oil.
Prior to the Daytona Speed Weeks, the company announced that it would not renew as the official fuel supplier of the sport beyond 2003, and the familiar orange ball marking the entrance to pit roads will be a distant memory after the season finale in Homestead.
NASCAR Vice President of Communications, Jim Hunter issued the following statement.
"The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and Conoco Phillips continue to enjoy a strong working relationship and look forward to another great season in 2003. NASCAR has enjoyed its longstanding relationship with the company and wishes it all the best in the future."
The departure of Conoco Phillips is significant, but it, too, was the proverbial tip of the iceberg as the focus of sponsor departures turned to RJ Reynolds (RJR).
RJR, which owns the Winston brand (Winston Cup Racing), surprised many involved in the sport when it terminated its "No-Bull Five" promotion at the end of last year, further indicating it would not replace the program.
RJR has had bonus promotions with the sport since it introduced the Winston Million in 1985.
Adding fuel to the fire was the schedule change in the ARCA series for its May Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. A race that traditionally is run with the Winston, the non-point all-star event for NASCAR's top series.
The Winston is the title race for RJR, whose corporate headquarters are less than an hour from the track.
One ARCA team owner attributed this move to growing tension between the tobacco company and NASCAR, leading to conjecture that somehow the status of the Winston is in question.
RJR responded to the speculation on February 5th as Ned Leary, President of Sports Marketing Enterprises for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company made the following announcement:
"Winston and NASCAR have been partners for over 30 years. We signed a five-year contract for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series sponsorship last July. Since that time, our business dynamics have changed dramatically. In our ongoing conversations with NASCAR, we have discussed the potential of their exploring a new series sponsor at some time in the future." The translation is simple, if a replacement can be found, RJR will go the way of Pennzoil and Conoco Phillips.
It is estimated that RJR spends in excess of thirty million dollars a year to sponsor the series. As restrictions on tobacco related marking came into force, RJR stopped endorsing NHRA drag racing and individual race teams.
Jimmy Spencer, who drove the Winston "No Bull" car for Travis Carter said "If RJR leaves, that would bother me. That is something I though we would never see"
RJR first began the relationship with NASCAR in 1971, but indications are clear that the end is near.
Another organization looking for corporate ties is The International Race Of Champions. IROC entered Daytona announcing that 2003 would be the last year that True Value Hardware (TruServ) would sponsor the series.
Carol Wentworth, VP Marketing and Advertising for TruServ stated:
"Our 19 year partnership with the International Race of Champions has increased brand exposure for True Value. True Value is proud of our association with the IROC Series and everyone at True Value appreciates the value that the IROC Series delivered to make our sponsorship a success. Our decision to depart from auto racing at the end of the 2003 season is necessary to continue along our path of financial success."
Series president Jay Signore puts the announcement in perspective.
"It is a sign of the times". Tosco Seventy-Six is leaving, and all the stuff with Winston; it is just how things are right now."
Losing title sponsor does not always indicate it will have a negative impact on the sport. The Indy Racing league has been associated with multiple sponsors since 1996, and currently is enjoying its strongest fan base in its history.
As motor sports continues to grow into a national phenomena, many long standing relationships such will continue to be redefined and change the face of what many consider tradition.