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Nextel Is NASCAR's Next Title Sponsor

Cellular phone company will replace R.J. Reynolds at the end of the season and Winston Cup racing will take on a new name.

June 18, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

How does Nextel Cup racing sound?

Nextel, a wireless communication company, is expected to be named Thursday to replace Winston as title sponsor of NASCAR's premier stock car racing circuit at the end of the season. The announcement will be made at a "major" news conference scheduled by NASCAR in New York City's Times Square.

The Winston Cup, and its R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. sponsorship, has been the flagship of NASCAR for 31 years and last year signed a five-year extension. Last February, however, RJR officials said they would be pulling out at an undetermined time and urged NASCAR to search for a new title sponsor.

A number of names surfaced, among them Visa, Coca-Cola and McDonald's, but according to several industry sources, Nextel will be named as the one to take over in 2004.

NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr., Vice Chairman and Executive Vice President Brian France and drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be at the news conference.

Asked to comment on Nextel's impending involvement, Gordon said Tuesday, "I can't go into specifics about it until Thursday."

The announcement conference will be shown live on Speed Channel at 7 a.m. Thursday.

Nextel Communications, based in Reston, Va., is a cell phone provider known for its "push-to-talk" feature, which allows use of the phone as a walkie-talkie. The company has about 15,000 employees and last year had revenues of $8.7 billion.

The news began to leak when NASCAR officials contacted several teams sponsored by other telecommunication companies to ask if it would be acceptable if Nextel were the title sponsor.

It has been estimated that R.J. Reynolds invested $30-60 million a year to sponsor the Winston Cup drivers' fund and other bonus programs, as well as to provide Sports Marketing Enterprises (SME) public relations personnel for the 38-race season.

Ned Leary, president of SME, said he would be attending the announcement party but added, "Other than that, it's premature for me to make any comment before then."

Winston became the series sponsor in 1971 when Junior Johnson, a champion driver turned car owner, approached Ralph Seagraves of RJR about sponsoring his car. Seagraves said his company wanted to be involved in stock car racing at a higher level, so Johnson referred him to Bill France, founding president of NASCAR. That meeting led to Winston's becoming the first title sponsor in motor racing.

Before 1972, NASCAR's top series had been known as the Grand National Series.

The growth of NASCAR has been paralleled by the growth of the Winston points fund. From $100,000 in 1972, of which $40,000 went to champion Richard Petty, the purse increased to $17 million this year, of which the champion will receive $4.25 million. Tony Stewart received $3.75 million as champion last year.

A similar change in name and sponsorship occurred in the National Hot Rod Assn. two years ago when it replaced the Winston brand name with Powerade, a sports drink brand of the Coca-Cola Co.

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