MOORESVILLE, N.C. Nov. 15--The ride is nearly over. For 19 seasons, U. S. Tobacco Company has participated as a team sponsor in the NASCAR Winston Cup series. That ride will come to an end with Sunday's running of the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor ...
MOORESVILLE, N.C. Nov. 15--The ride is nearly over. For 19 seasons, U. S. Tobacco Company has participated as a team sponsor in the NASCAR Winston Cup series. That ride will come to an end with Sunday's running of the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The trail began in February 1981 when motion picture director Hal Needham and actor Burt Reynolds debuted their Skoal Bandit Racing team at the Daytona 500. They intended to run 19 races with motion picture stuntman Stan Barrett at the wheel. Barrett was a raw rookie to the sport and journeyman driver Harry Gant was enlisted to assist crew chief Travis Carter in setting up the car for Barrett.
It is fitting that the final race in the company's tenure as a team sponsor in the NASCAR Winston Cup series takes place at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was at Atlanta, in March of 1981, that the seed was sown that grew into an almost magical journey through NASCAR racing. After Gant, driving for another team, finished second to Cale Yarborough at the Atlanta race, Needham approached Gant about driving a second car for the team.
"I wasn't so sure about Hal," recalls Gant. "I had never met anyone like him before. He was all Hollywood. Gold chains around his neck and fancy clothes. But I knew Travis and I knew the cars were good."
Gant's first start for the team came a month later at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and he finished second. Halfway through the year Barrett was gone and the team now competed fulltime on the NASCAR circuit. After five more runner-up finishes, Gant broke through and won his first race at Martinsville, Va. in April 1982. After 17 years of racing, most of them in NASCAR's lesser divisions, Gant was a star and his legions of fans that cheered him over his long career on the short tracks had a Winston Cup hero. Gant won eight more races and finished in the top-five in points four times before Needham bowed out of the sport after the 1988 season. He credits Needham with being a major force in changing the face of stock car racing. "Hal was the first to dress the crew in matching embroidered uniforms. He had a big hauler with the car painted on it. He brought people from Hollywood to the races. He even had cheerleaders in the pits once."
With Needham's exit, Gant and the Skoal Bandit Racing backing moved to a team owned by Asheville, N.C. businessman Leo Jackson. The highlight of Gant's career came in 1991 with Jackson. In the month of September, with young crew chief Andy Petree directing the operation, Gant won four straight races at Darlington, Richmond, Dover, Del. and Martinsville, Va. He was dubbed "Mr. September" and his legion of followers grew greater still. Gant won a total of nine races with two more top-five points finishes with Jackson before retiring at the end of the 1994 season. He summed up his feelings about the previous 14 years saying, "I'd like to be remembered as the driver of the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Racing car. That's all."
Jackson continued for two more years with rookie driver Robert Pressley before selling his team to Petree in September 1996. Petree had left Jackson following the 1992 season for the Richard Childress team and driver Dale Earnhardt. He engineered two championships for Earnhardt before he returned to fulfill has dream of owning a Winston Cup team.
After securing the Skoal Racing sponsorship, Petree hired veteran racer Ken Schrader and in their first year together finished 10th in the 1997 points championship. Although there have been no wins, the pairing has earned five poles, five top-five and 25 top-10 finishes and more than $5 million over the last three years.
"U.S. Tobacco Company has been one of the best sponsors in NASCAR racing," says Petree. "I am proud to have been affiliated with them. I have been involved with the company in some capacity since 1982, with the exception of the three years I was at Richard Childress Racing. I want to thank them for their past support and everything they have contributed to our team." The ride may be coming to an end but the memories of 19 years of excitement will remain for the fans, drivers, car owners and crewmembers that made it happen. And so will U.S. Tobacco Company's belief in the sport of NASCAR, its competitors and fans.