With RJR considering leaving, Winston Cup is for salePosted: Thursday February 06, 2003 9:21 PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Fast forward to 2008: Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president, the stock market is at 12,000 and NASCAR's stars are racing for the Viagra Cup.
Well, some of that might be a stretch. But the racing part might not be so farfetched.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said Wednesday it has given NASCAR permission to look for a new sponsor for its Winston Cup Series, meaning the naming rights for the top racing series are for sale.
Should another company take over the title sponsorship, the Winston Cup Series -- as its been called since 1971 -- could look a lot different.
"When I was a kid and following NASCAR, I just thought it was The Winston Cup Series -- I had no idea it was named after a cigarette," four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said Thursday.
"I really can't imagine it being called anything else. I'm sure another company would come aboard, but it would be so hard for it to match anything Winston has done."
RJR has been the title sponsor since 1971, when the company came into the sport as manufacturers were leaving.
Many believe Winston built NASCAR, establishing a points fund and pumping millions of dollars into the sport.
Winston Cup has become synonymous with NASCAR ever since. Last week, Winston announced an increase in its season-ending points fund to $17 million, with the Winston Cup champion getting $4.25 million.
"I remember all the jokes my dad used to make when I was growing up about all the money he had won from Winston," said Kyle Petty, son of seven-time series champion Richard Petty.
"They used to say the house I grew up in and the land we lived on was all paid for by Winston."
Still appropriate? Maybe not.
Winston, after all, is a cigarette brand and RJR is a big tobacco company. In a day and age when lawmakers have saddled the companies with restrictions on what they can do in advertising and sponsorship, RJR has had a difficult time marketing itself.
And as NASCAR has grown, it has tried to target a younger generation while selling itself as a family sport.
"Winston can't put commercials on television, they can't do the advertising they want or we want," said NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. "They can't go after the audience we are going after. It's made for some hard times and some hard decisions they've got to make."
As of now, RJR is still involved in the sport. The company signed a five-year contract extension in July that runs through the 2007 season. The deal has been estimated to pay NASCAR anywhere from $30 million to $60 million annually.
Ned Leary, president of RJR's Sports Marketing Enterprises division, was insistent Thursday that the company plans to honor that contract.
But should another big business come forward, willing to write a large check to take over the sponsorship, Leary said RJR would be willing to listen.
"We've told NASCAR they can explore other sponsorship opportunities, and if someone came forward now, if it was in the best interest of the sport, we'd take a look at it," Leary said. "But right now, we have a five-year contract."
Leary also said it's not a given that RJR will leave. Should the business climate change in the next few years, the company might be in a position to re-up again with NASCAR.
But that time is not right now.
Last month, in perhaps a warning sign, RJR said it was discontinuing the No Bull 5 program that awarded a $1 million bonus to a driver and fan at one of five selected races.
And last week, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., the parent company of RJR, announced fourth quarter losses of $59 million in the final three months of 2002.
So like any company, RJR is being forced to look at its bottom line and pick and choose where its spending its money.
NASCAR isn't worried.
The phones have been ringing since RJR's announcement, NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said, and in a worst case scenario, the sanctioning body has five years to find another sponsor.
At Thursday's Daytona 500 Media Day, drivers digested the thought of Winston's departure and corporate names were already being tossed around. Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Anheuser-Busch were all mentioned as possible replacements.
Whether or not the series is renamed the Coca-Cola Cup or the Budweiser Bowl, few think any company will be able to match what Winston has done.
"No matter what they call it, most of us will always know it as Winston Cup racing," driver John Andretti said. "Long after they're gone -- and I hope they don't leave -- we'll probably all still call it Winston Cup. That's what NASCAR is."