NASCAR bids adieu to RJR

The season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway marked more than just the end of the 2003 NASCAR season. It also concluded the 33-year relationship with title sponsor RJR and its Winston brand. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company partnered with NASCAR...

The season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway marked more than just the end of the 2003 NASCAR season. It also concluded the 33-year relationship with title sponsor RJR and its Winston brand.

RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company partnered with NASCAR in 1971 to take over what was then called the Grand National Division. That series became known at the Winston Cup, as RJR helped NASCAR climb to be the most popular motorsport in America. The marriage was a mutually beneficial one.

RJR needed a way to market its brands without being in violation of new cigarette laws that banned the tobacco giant from television and radio advertising. In 1972, when the deal was closed, RJR immediately started to funnel cash into the series, contributing more than $101 million dollars to the driver point fund.

As master lawsuit settlements in 1998 began to drain the finances of big tobacco, it looked as if RJR would continue to stay with NASCAR. They signed a contract extension, but approached NASCAR in February saying they were free to explore a new title sponsor.

NASCAR began its hunt, and just four months later signed 10-year, $90 million dollar (per season) deal with Nextel, a wireless communications company based in Reston, Virginia. At the June announcement, drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. both concurred that the new sponsor will open doors to a youth market long eluded by the NASCAR/RJR marketing machine.

"Unfortunately, R.J. Reynolds has been limited in a lot of areas, and they've done a fantastic job, but I see there are very few limitations as to where Nextel can take it," Jeff Gordon said. "Who knows where they can take it now going forward in the future?"

Most of Nextel's corporate marketing strategies cannot begin until January, but it has been made clear that the youth demographic is of the highest priority. A goal the relationship with Winston prevented, as cigarette companies are expressly forbidden to market to people under the age of eighteen.

Still, most fans don't remember a time when it wasn't the Winston Cup series; while it is expected that NASCAR and Nextel will grow the appeal of the sport to even more markets, it will be hard for race fans to begin calling the Winston Cup the Nextel Cup starting at Speedweeks 2004. The name Winston is so entwined with NASCAR that most people have long forgotten it's the name of a cigarette at all - including some of the sports elite drivers.

"I can say that I've wanted to race in Winston Cup all my life," said Johnson. "Good or bad, I didn't realize that it was a cigarette brand. I thought it was just what NASCAR called it. That's all that I've ever known."

The signs of the new-era of NASCAR are already showing. The 2004 schedule has been realigned, shuffling a second date to Fontana, California and killing one southeast race at Rockingham, North Carolina. Predictions of more date and location changes in years to come is anticipated, as part of the new marketing direction is to bring NASCAR out of its Southern racing roots with dates throughout the country.

It is widely expected that NASCAR by 2005, will expand to major markets including New York City, where scouts have looked at real estate at New Jersey's Meadowlands complex and the Queens Aqueduct. It is no secret that NASCAR would sell their soul to get a date anywhere in the vicinity of the greater New York/New Jersey area.

"The Winston" - NASCAR's all-star event, will continue under a new moniker. It will now be known as the "NASCAR All-Star by Nextel". While it will remain at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte for 2004, that date is also expected to shuffle.

As dates and names change, a lot of die-hard fans aren't sure how they shake out in the new world of the Nextel Cup series. They fear that as NASCAR pursues a broader fan base that they will somehow be left behind. NASCAR promises that won't happen, and hopes that the fans can share in the pride and vision this new arrangement will bring to the elite world of stock car racing.

"My father would definitely be proud," said Bill France, Jr. at the Nextel announcement in June. "We've come a long way toward fulfilling his vision, and we've come a long way toward making NASCAR racing a national sport with fans spread across America.

"We still have miles to go to achieve our goals, but we are confident we are well on our way, with Nextel as our new partner."

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Series AUTOMOTIVE , NASCAR-CUP