2003 Daytona 500 2003 Daytona 500

Star treatment

Amid celebrities, NASCAR recognizes sponsor executive

Posted: Sunday February 16, 2003 1:34 PM
Updated: Sunday February 16, 2003 3:56 PM
  Mariah Carey Mariah Carey also performed at halftime of last weekend's NBA All-Star Game. AP

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- There are stars. And then there are the people NASCAR really cares about.

As always, NASCAR president Mike Helton took the microphone at the pre-race drivers' meeting at the Daytona 500 on Sunday and gave glowing introductions to all the luminaries on hand -- John Travolta, Evander Holyfield, skateboarder Tony Hawk and others.

But when that was over, when all the rules had been discussed and the meeting was about to break up, Helton made one last special intro: to Ned Leary, the man who oversees sports marketing for RJ Reynolds Tobacco.

The tobacco company is considering severing ties with NASCAR after 32 years.

"With all the conversations going on, we want their folks to know we have a great relationship, and we have great appreciation for all you've done in the past, present and the future," Helton said.

RJR has a contract with NASCAR through 2007 but has said it was exploring getting out of the NASCAR sponsorship business. If it does, NASCAR would have to find a new title sponsor to pump an estimated $30 million to $60 million into its top series. It would be one of the biggest changes the sport has ever seen.

Travolta, the grand marshal of Sunday's race, got a huge hand from the hundreds of drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors' guests who were crammed into the garage area where the meeting took place.

Before that, in interviews with reporters, the movie star did a hilarious run-down of the possible ways he might utter the famous words, "Gentlemen, start your engines," imitating the voices of Nicholas Cage, Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis and, of course, Vinnie Barbarino, his old TV character from Welcome Back, Kotter.

Mariah Carey sang the national anthem.

Lt. Gen. Dennis Cavin, commanding general of the Army, led the estimated 200,000 fans in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Cavin got a rousing hand when Helton introduced him at the start of the driver's meeting -- eclipsed only by the applause for Leary, whose company has turned many of those present at the meeting into millionaires over the years.

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