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Top Story, No Butts About It

November 28, 2003|SHAV GLICK

The most significant motor sports event of the year didn't occur at a racetrack, but in a boardroom in Reston, Va., where a decision was reached that was announced June 19 at Nasdaq headquarters in New York.

Winston, the flagship of NASCAR's premier racing series for 33 years, was leaving the sport, to be replaced by Nextel, a wireless communications company.

The end to one of sports' most lucrative sponsorships was forced by an agreement signed in June 1997 between the tobacco industry and states' attorneys general that will end all tobacco sponsorships by 2006. Although Winston could have stayed on until then, its parent company, R.J. Reynolds, asked to leave early, in part because of flagging cigarette sales.

The arrival of Winston in 1971 proved to be one of those magic business deals that benefited both parties beyond their wildest dreams.

When Junior Johnson, the legendary bootlegger turned race car driver, approached old friend Ralph Seagraves about a possible "couple of hundred thousand bucks" to finance his team, NASCAR was a struggling stock car series.

RJR needed help too. An earlier ruling had banned all tobacco advertising on television, leaving the company with millions of dollars in advertising revenue with no place to spend it.

When Seagraves informed Johnson that what he wanted was peanuts, that RJR was looking for bigger fish, Johnson sent him to Bill France, founder of NASCAR. That meeting led to the first major non-automotive sponsorship in motor racing's history.

The first announcement was of a $100,000 point fund, with $40,000 going to champion Richard Petty. To compare, the point fund this year is $17 million, with champion Matt Kenseth getting $4.25 million.

Seagraves, a gregarious and persuasive man who had lobbied government leaders in Washington before returning home to Winston-Salem, N.C., hired two young men just out of college, Jeff Byrd and T. Wayne Robertson, and went to work.

"The first thing Ralph did was to take at look at the tracks where NASCAR ran and decided most of them needed sprucing up," recalled Byrd, now president of Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. "That meant buying a lot of red and white paint -- thousands of gallons of it -- and giving the tracks a first-class appearance. Ralph was always insistent that image was important."

Seagraves, who died in 1998, was not one to be easily embarrassed. He insisted, when the Winston Cup was in its infancy, that his aides join him in wearing outlandish all-red uniforms with white stripes down the pant legs with slogans on them.

"It was bad enough to wear them around the racetrack, but can you imagine how we felt walking through an airport or into a nice hotel lobby looking like a Roman candle?" Byrd said.

Despite dressing like a walking Winston advertisement, Seagraves told his associates that if he heard one of them asking a reporter, or anyone associated with racing, to mention Winston in a story or on the air, they would be fired.

"We got knocked off TV because we were too apparent," he said. "We want our message now to be more subliminal."

Seagraves also insisted on giving NASCAR a national image. His first major step was to move the annual awards banquet from Daytona Beach, Fla., to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

In 1971, of the 48 races, 40 were in the South. There were three in California -- two at Riverside and one at Ontario -- and two in Michigan, two in New York and one in New Jersey. Gradually, new venues opened in Arizona in 1988, Northern California in 1989, New England in 1993 and the coup of all, Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.

It all worked. The Winston name became commonplace on nearly every story involving stock car racing and every time it was mentioned it was also a plug for NASCAR. And stock car racing became so popular that NASCAR brokered a $2.8-billion contract with Fox and NBC/TNT three years ago.

"Winston Cup racing was unquestionably the most cost-effective campaign in advertising history," Dr. Alan Blum, director of the University of Alabama's Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, told the Orlando Sentinel. "No brand of any product got more mileage at a cheaper rate than RJR did with NASCAR."

So now it's all over, or at least it will be after next Friday night's banquet in New York.

When NASCAR reassembles at Daytona Beach in February, it will be Nextel Cup time. Curiously, NASCAR will have a new president, Brian France, just as it did when Bill France turned the reins over to Bill Jr., Brian's father, shortly after RJR and Winston arrived.

And only time will tell where Brian France and Nextel will take NASCAR. The communications giant has committed between $600 million and $750 million over 10 years, but money was only part of RJR's legacy. Its biggest contribution came in support from its people taking a personal interest in the sport.

The transfer from Winston to Nextel was the story of 2003. What Nextel has planned for NASCAR may be the story of 2004.

Ticklish Toyota

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