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NASCAR Must Have Hangover

COMMENTARY

November 14, 2004|Steve Wilstein | Associated Press

Mixed messages, like too many mixed cocktails, can cause a nasty hangover.

NASCAR is setting itself up for a lulu of a head-splitter by trying to reconcile hard-liquor ads on race cars with efforts to spiff up the image of a sport that traces its roots to moonshine runners.

It's kind of schizo-marketing to extol a wholesome "family values" business while drivers are behind the wheels of speeding cars painted like beer cans and, soon, Jack Daniel's and other whiskey bottles.

In NASCAR's world, where the name of the game is sponsorship, drinking and driving go together a little too neatly.

No driver, though, should risk saying he likes his hops or sour mash too blankety much. Cussing, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. discovered, is punishable by points.

On one level, the decision Wednesday to lift the ban on hard-liquor ads is no big deal. Budweiser sponsors Earnhardt's car, Matt Kenseth has a deal with Smirnoff ICE malt beverage, and Busch sponsors a whole lower-tier racing series. There's enough beer poured by fans at a race to float all the cars.

So why should anyone get worked up over letting the drivers hawk higher-proof booze? Whiskey, beer, wine? It's all alcohol and it's all legal, unlike the moonshine that the good ol' boys barreled through the hills of Georgia and the Carolinas way back when.

Let's not cry out for a return to Prohibition but let's not kid ourselves that a sport like NASCAR, and the sponsorships behind it, doesn't influence its fans, young and old.

Let's not pretend that there's no incongruity in the driving/drinking bargain that NASCAR has struck. More than 17,000 people die and a half-million are injured every year because of drunken driving.

NASCAR knows it's on dangerous ground here, no matter how lucrative the deals might be. President Mike Helton went to great pains to sugarcoat the mixed message by emphasizing the "long record of responsible advertising" by the spirits companies.

That's questionable, but there also is the real wreckage caused by drunken drivers in the 18-to-34 male demographic that NASCAR so assiduously and successfully cultivates.

"Any spirits company involved in NASCAR will have marketing campaigns strongly grounded in responsibility and will follow advertising and marketing guidelines set by NASCAR that are consistent with the Distilled Spirits Council's advertising code," Helton said.

He said NASCAR reached out to advocacy groups such as the National Commission Against Drunk Driving and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

John Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, was impressed with the way NASCAR approached the change of policy.

"They told us that any advertising done in NASCAR by breweries or distillers, they'll make sure it is directed at the legal age audience and not to kids and that they will require 20 percent of advertising dollars go toward promoting responsible drinking.

"We'd like to see that same type of responsibility by all sports and advertisers."

Problem is, there are plenty of NASCAR fans under 21 watching those alcohol ads going around the track and making the obvious connection with life in the fast lane.

Wendy Hamilton, president of MADD, is holding back judgment, saying the only contact she had with NASCAR was a few e-mails and an agreement to participate on an advisory committee.

Personally, she said, she's always thought it was "absurd" to put alcohol ads on cars. But she emphasized that MADD is not a prohibitionist organization and does not oppose alcohol advertising aimed at drinkers over 21.

"NASCAR, with its fan base, has the opportunity to be a player in this world when it comes to drunk driving because clearly not enough people are getting the message," Hamilton said.

"Our position is very clear. We're going to be talking about all alcohol, not just the distilled spirits industry, and our message is no underage drinking and don't mix drinking and driving."

Every sport should be sending the same message. Binge drinking on college campuses, especially at football and basketball games, is huge.

"There isn't a single area of sports in this country where some athlete hasn't been convicted for drunk driving or hasn't hurt somebody driving drunk," Hamilton said.

Just last week, 19-year-old six-time Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps was arrested and charged with drunken driving in Maryland, where the legal drinking age is 21.

"I want to say that last week I made a mistake. I wanted to share my feelings and I know that getting in a car with anything to drink is wrong, dangerous and is unacceptable," Phelps told The Associated Press.

Hamilton called Phelps' actions "very disappointing" but said "he still has an opportunity to be a great role model by doing the right thing and accepting the consequences and never doing it again."

NASCAR has a chance, too, to be a model for sports and do more than simply make money off its beer and liquor deals. That's a sobering thought it can't afford to pass up.

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