R.J. Reynolds pullout from NASCAR looming

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Obviously, the big news this week is the potential pullout of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, whose Winston brand has been NASCAR's "angel" since 1971.

The tobacco company issued a statement last week citing "changing business dynamics" (read lawsuits and anti-smoking campaigns), and saying the company had discussed with NASCAR the possible benefit of pursuing alternate sponsorship.

Chief operating officer George Pyne said that if Reynolds does depart as the sponsor of the Winston Cup Series, it would be akin to a death in the family. My guess is that it's rich Uncle George, the one that everybody was counting on to make them independently wealthy for the rest of their lives.

R.J. Reynolds and Winston elevated NASCAR from a second-tier regional racing series to the status of premier American racing, and the 600 pound gorilla of racing in this country. I recall that when I first got involved in racing in the late 1960s, NASCAR was not the biggest, nor the most popular, racing series. Back then, Champ Cars (Indy cars), and Sports Car Club of America series like the Can-Am and Trans-Am were far more nationally popular than NASCAR. But as I've mentioned a number of times in this space, the marketing juggernaut of R.J. Reynolds and Winston changed all that forever. Hey, any company that can talk millions of people into voluntarily giving themselves lung cancer can sell anything!

Pyne opined that NASCAR now has a sufficiently powerful "brand name" that it will be able to pick up a replacement sponsor with minimal difficulty.

"We think we have a valuable brand (and) what we would be selling you can't really buy anywhere else," Pyne said. "If you ask any of their (RJR) people, I think they will tell you they see a great value in NASCAR and that it's as valuable as it's ever been.

At least NASCAR has some time before RJR pulls the plug. There's a $50 million annual contract between the two that doesn't expire until 2006, so the stock car series still has a few years to find a replacement sugar daddy. Even so, Winston spokesman Denny Darnell said any provisions of the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement would not preclude Winston to sponsor the series beyond 2006, so things could still change.

If NASCAR does find a replacement, count on it not being a tobacco company that faces the same sort of legal restrictions and won't have the restrictions a tobacco company has in its marketing. In any case, Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler plans to continue the annual All-Star race, but with a different name than "The Winston."

Today's Daytona 500 is shaping up to be a Chevy show, with the top four starters all sporting the bowtie brand and all four driving for either Richard Childress Racing (RCR) or Dale Earnhardt Enterprises (DEI). Even two years after his death, the shadow of Dale Earnhardt still looms large over Daytona. With the new "common template" bodies now in effect, we probably won't hear as much complaining about aero advantages from the various manufacturers, but look for NASCAR to start policing engine development more stringently in order to ensure the all-important "parity." It has been apparent in recent seasons that the DEI crowd has figured out some tricks to restrictor plate engine development that has put it far and away ahead of other teams, but the Childress gang isn't far behind. Can Ford and Dodge catch up without some serious help from the NASCAR tech people? I guess we'll see this season.

One of the rumors alluded to in this space recently was confirmed last Thursday, when Toyota made the announcement that Tundra trucks would compete in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series beginning in 2004. Toyota has become a force in motorsports in recent years, with Toyota Racing Development (TRD) domination in off-road racing, championships in Championship Auto Racing (CART), a Formula 1 effort, and a debut in the Indy Racing League (IRL) for 2003. It's entry into the Truck Series heralds, I'm sure, a foot in the door for Winston Cup involvement not too many years down the road.

Toyota is the first non-domestic manufacturer to enter a major NASCAR-sanctioned race series since the sanctioning body's inception in 1948.

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Betting Columnist.


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