Buttin Out

When Unocal 76 announced it would end its seemingly eon long association with NASCAR at the end of this season that was a surprise. But the news that RJ Reynolds and their Winston brand of cigarette may be ending its association with NASCAR’s top racing series, Winston Cup, is a distressing shock.

There’s no timetable set for Winston’s departure. Last summer they signed a five year extension of the deal with NASCAR and corporate spokespeople say they will honor that commitment if they must. But they have told NASCAR that if another company comes along wishing to be the series’ new title sponsor, they’ll yield the rights to that corporation. Increasing government interference in the tobacco industry and the imposition of sin taxes that have raised the cost of the pack of a “brand” cigarette to the point smokers are switching to generics seem to be the main two reasons RJR wants to end its 33 year association with the sport.

Newer fans might not realize the predicament that NASCAR was in when Winston stepped into the picture back in the early 70s. During the 60s the sport had grown dependent on automobile manufacturers’ money, mainly the millions of dollars Ford and Chrysler spent on their factory teams and heralding the accomplishments of those teams and by association NASCAR. But the 70s dawned, the first oil crises struck, environmental and safety concerns conspired to kill off the first generation of muscle cars and the big 3 returned to Detroit to lick their wounds while the imported car industry took over. Somehow opera windows, half vinyl roofs and garish decal packages Detroit offered didn’t make up for the fact the ugly emission controlled cars they offered accelerated like oil tankers, stalled out a lot and got lousy mileage.

There was great concern that NASCAR might not make it. Stalwarts like Cale Yarborough left the sport to go Indy car racing as no team owner would pay his salary to drive a stock car. Junior Johnson quit racing his teams saying he’d not spend a dime of his own money to race. The fields of cars, particularly at smaller events with equally small purses dwindled away. To make ends meet teams looked for corporate sponsorship. Two of the most notable early examples were STP signing with Petty Engineering, and Coca Cola backing Bobby Allison who bought the soda companies cash to Junior Johnson’s team. In fact Winston is said to have first proposed sponsoring Johnson’s team, but when he heard what their goals were and how much money they had to spend, Junior supposedly sent them to see Bill France about sponsoring the entire series.

Meanwhile the tobacco industry and RJR were facing some challenges of their own. That same increasingly obtrusive US government that wanted to save people from dying in car wrecks or from breathing automotive exhaust didn’t want them to smoke themselves to death either. (No, nagging nanny is not one of the roles government is to play according to the constitution.) New legislation forbid tobacco companies from advertising on TV or in certain publications. By attaching themselves to a major sport the tobacco companies could market themselves on TV through the back door. But the NFL wasn’t ready to rename itself the NFL presented by Marlboro. The match between Winston and NASCAR seemed a natural one. Both stock car racing and the tobacco industry had their roots in the fertile soil of the Southeast.

Winston stepped to the plate with what was in that era a huge pot of money much of it devoted to the year end points fund. Thus to compete for those lucrative points positions teams had to run every race which restored full fields to most tracks. More and more corporate sponsors aligned themselves with teams and the ranch was saved.

Winston has been a dream partner for NASCAR, heavily promoting the sport and bringing it into the mainstream. A valid argument can be made the late T. Wayne Robertson, Winston’s point man for the sport until his tragic demise a few years ago, did as much if not more for the sport as Bill France Jr., and certainly more than Mike Helton ever will even if he would to live to the age of Methuselah in his current job capacity.

Nor was it a one way street. NASCAR took care of its new corporate partner. A rule was made that no other tobacco company could advertise in the series. Winston wasn’t interested in any race less than 200 miles in length so wholesale changes were made to NASCAR’s schedule, which dropped a majority of short tracks from the slate starting in 1972. (Including, ironically enough, the Winston-Salem track.) Some newspaper editors were squeamish about using the term “Winston Cup” and continued to label the series “Grand National racing.” NASCAR promptly renamed the Sportsman division “the Grand National series, to force editors to use the new name or hopelessly confuse the paper’s readership.

It’s not as dramatic as it was back in the 70s, but NASCAR’s premiere division is once again facing a mighty challenge. Just as the sport grew dependent and addicted to the factory money in the 60s, today’s Winston Cup circuit is dependent on corporate sponsors and like the automobile companies did in the 70s, a lot of those sponsors are leaving the sport during this economic downturn. The vastly increased TV moneys being paid could usher in a new era, but damn little of it is trickling down to the race series purses. And now Winston is looking at the door as well.

The news from Daytona Beach remains wine and roses. The series is healthy and surely another title sponsor will be eager to step to the plate. One of the names mentioned is McDonalds which seems a bit unlikely the way the clown burger firm has been losing money as of late and the open revolt among its stockholders. Another company that’s been mentioned is Budweiser, and let’s face it the Clydesdale boys spend money on marketing like they hate it. So what happens if Bud becomes the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top division? Will they drop the 8 team’s sponsorship? Not necessarily. You might recall that Winston sponsored a car in addition to the series for many years. (And to NASCAR’s credit, there were no suspicious wins by the Winston car. In fact the Winston Car never won a race.) But what would become of Coors and Miller? Recall NASCAR enacted a ban on other tobacco sponsorships when they signed Winston.

No matter what sponsor might be signed it seems highly unlikely that the relationship will last as long as Winston’s has, unless of course another tobacco company decides to step into the void. Cigarette companies are limited in what marketing strategies they can employ. Retailers, fast food joints, beer companies, and soft drink manufacturers are not. Coca Cola could sign on for three years then decide to move on to the X Games or Britney Spears next tour. Don’t think soft drink manufacturers are obsessed with the youth market Winston isn’t supposed to cater to? How come kids are drinking a new Pepsi product the color of Windex? When’s the last time you saw anyone over 30 in a Coca Cola ad?

The one name I’m only hearing whispered at his point is Wal-Mart, the 600 pound gorilla of retailing. But its interesting Wal-Mart has always had a corporate line that getting involved in racing wasn’t a part of their marketing future.

Whatever the outcome, and whatever your stance is on smoking, NASCAR and race fans owe a huge debt to Winston. The partnership between NASCAR and Winston is the most successful sports-sponsorship relationship in the history of marketing and it has been of huge benefit to both parties. The frightening part is what if RJR’s forward thinking marketing folks want to bail on NASCAR because they sense the bloom is off the rose and the sports days of explosive growth are coming to an end? What if all those better demographic, wealthier, younger, more educated, more Damn Yankee fans NASCAR is catering too just happen to be the sort that are less likely to smoke cigarettes in the increasingly politically correct atmosphere that has made smokers social pariahs banned to the outskirts of society, huddled together in the cold outside office buildings for their 10 o'clock break? What if NASCAR finally went ahead and fried the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg, and Winston asked for their Goose McNuggets to go?

Beer, There And Everywhere- Whoops. Someone should have seen this coming. Miller got a lot of ink and bandwidth with a novel promotion they planned for this year’s Daytona 500. If their driver, Rusty Wallace, were to win, Miller promised every fan of drinking age in attendance at the race a coupon for a free six pack of Miller. Wallace, after all, has been trying for 20 years to win the 500 without success, one of the few prizes in racing he hasn’t attained. But as it turns out, Coors Light is the official beer of the Daytona 500 and as such no other beer company can stage a promotion on speedway grounds.

Huh, I hear some of you ask. Isn’t Budweiser the Official Beer of NACAR? Yep, but Coors has signed a deal with the ISC to become the official beer of the Daytona 500. If Miller is willing to throw some money NASCAR’s way maybe they can still become the Official Beer of Daytona Victory Lane or the Official Breakfast Drink of the Daytona Infield. But lacking that, I see a problem here. The program was promoted. Race fans read about it on the ‘net and the papers. Presumably Miller has run some ads concerning the promotion. Now if Rusty Wallace were to win the Daytona 500, and tens of thousands of beer drinking fans started looking around for their free beer and were told they weren’t getting any, think things might turn ugly really fast?

But I’ve come up with a solution for Miller. Have former ESPN pit road reporters dress up like Muppets and hand out the coupons for free beer at the helipad after the race.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

Photos

  • 1994 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 1995 Brickyard Winner: Dale Earnhardt
  • 1996 Brickyard Winner: Dale Jarrett
  • 1997 Brickyard Winner: Ricky Rudd
  • 1998 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 1999 Brickyard Winner: Dale Jarrett
  • 2000 Brickyard Winner: Bobby Labonte
  • 2001 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 2002 Brickyard Winner: Bill Elliott
  • 2003 Brickyard Winner: Kevin Harvick
  • 2004 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 2005 Brickyard Winner: Tony Stewart
  • 2006 Brickyard Winner: Jimmie Johnson
  • 2007 Brickyard Winner: Tony Stewart
  • 2008 Brickyard Winner: Jimmie Johnson
  • 2009 Brickyard Winner: Jimmie Johnson
  • 2010 Brickyard Winner: Jamie McMurray
  • 2011 Brickyard Winner: Paul Menard
  • 2012 Brickyard Winner: Jimmie Johnson
  • 2013 Brickyard Winner: Ryan Newman
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Camping World RV Sales 301
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • Coke Zero 400
  • © 2014 MRN. All Rights Reserved

    FacebookTwitterDiggDeliciousLinkedInGoogle BookmarksYahoo BookmarksLive (MSN)

    ISC Track Sites