An interesting ride for Nextel, NASCAR |

An interesting ride for Nextel, NASCAR

Roger Diez

Obviously the big news of the week was NASCAR’s announcement on Thursday of its 10-year deal with Nextel Communications as the title sponsor of the Winston– oops — Nextel Cup beginning with the 2004 season.

Both parties were careful not to disclose any dollar figures, but industry watchers have pegged Nextel’s support as high as $90 million per year, including direct support and media buys. NASCAR chairman Bill France did indicate that the series points fund, currently at $17 million including the Winston all-star race, would increase significantly, but didn’t discuss exact figures or a timetable for the increase. Speaking of the Winston, the event will continue under the title “The NASCAR All-Star Race presented by Nextel.” The location of the race, held at Lowe’s Motor Speedway for the last several years, was left open.

What’s my take on all this? The handwriting has been on the wall for a while that R.J. Reynolds, maker of Winston cigarettes, would get out of NASCAR due to business issues and the ever-tightening restrictions brought about by the 1997 Master Settlement Agreement on tobacco advertising. In recent years, a number of names have been floated as Winston’s successor, notably Coca-Cola. Nextel, founded in 1987 and growing to $8.7 billion in revenue in 2002, largely through mergers and acquisitions, sees NASCAR as a way to increase market share, given the legendary brand loyalty of NASCAR fans. NASCAR, for its part, sees Nextel as the key to penetrating the sought-after and lucrative 18-to-34-year-old market and increasing its fan base with younger followers.

The Winston connection is what brought NASCAR to its now-premier position in American motorsports. In 1972 the tobacco giant hooked up with what was then pretty much a regional Southeastern sport and used its marketing expertise to increase NASCAR’s popularity nationwide. It’s definitely the end of an era for NASCAR, but a bright beginning for a new Reich. There are, however, a few clouds on the horizon. The mobile communication industry, still relatively new, is highly volatile. Sudden market shifts or technology paradigm changes could create big problems for Nextel. If that happens, what will become of the ten-year agreement with NASCAR? Remember Northern Light and Pep Boys, both of which defaulted on their sponsorship agreements with the Indy Racing League? Remember WorldCom? At this point in history, NASCAR is still strong enough to attract another platinum-plated sponsor if Nextel falls upon hard times, but will that remain true in three, five, or eight years? Put on your helmet and strap in . . . . It’s going to be an interesting ride.

This is one of those weekends that I wish I could clone myself. I’m committed to three local races on Friday and Saturday, and will be at Reno-Fernley Raceway today learning how to drive a dirt-track stock car in preparation for the second annual Brian Sweeney Memorial Media/Celebrity race. Meanwhile, NASCAR Winston Cup and Trans-Am will be racing at Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) in Sonoma, an event I’ve attended many times and even announced more than once. To make missing that event event more difficult, my friend Memo Gidley, probably the most underutilized top-rank American driver, has landed a ride in one of Paul Gentilozzi’s Rocketsports Jaguars for the Trans-Am segment. I’d love to be there to cheer him on. Yet another event is taking place this weekend that I’ve attended (and announced), the Champ Car race at Portland International Raceway. A tough decision as to which way to go, but any time somebody offers to let you drive his racecar, that’s the deciding factor.

There will be some unfamiliar names on the grid at Infineon for today’s Winston Cup race, as several road-course specialist “ringers” are being brought in for the event. Ron Fellows, fresh from LeMans, will be at the wheel of the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet, replacing Jeff Green; Trans-Am points leader Johnny Miller will pilot the no. 4 Kodak Pontiac, from which Mike Skinner was released last week; Scott Pruett will drive the No. 09 Target Dodge; P.J. Jones unfortunately did not qualify the hapless No. 14 Harkrah’s Dodge for A.J. Foyt, but Boris Said surprised a lot of folks when he put the No. 01 U.S. Army Pontiac on the pole!EAnd I’ll be wheeling Blake Ramthun’s Hobby Stock Camaro around Reno-Fernley Raceway’s 3/8 mile dirt oval while the Winston Cup race is going on! Thank goodness for VCRs!

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist.