RJR Announcement Jolts NASCAR's Big Day
Thu Feb 6, 5:25 PM ET
By EDDIE PELLS, AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The millionaires sat at their tables, discussing the latest business deals and how their portfolios might be affected.
A convention of Fortune 500 execs?
No, just a bunch of NASCAR drivers at media day, the kickoff to a new season that got quite a jolt when R.J. Reynolds, the sponsor of the Winston Cup Series, said it might sever sponsorship ties with NASCAR.
"It's really not a sponsorship," NASCAR's chief operating officer George Pyne said Thursday. "It's more like a marriage"
The possibility that the marriage might end, and the seismic consequences of such a breakup, was the main topic at media day, the six-hour Q&A festival NASCAR began three years ago to make the lead-up to the Daytona 500 feel even more like the Super Bowl.
"I'm not sure how it's going to affect everybody, because NASCAR is such a big sport," driver Jeremy Mayfield said. "But I'd hate to see that. They've been so good to the sport."
No sport has wed itself to sponsorship as unabashedly as NASCAR, and the Winston brand has been synonymous with stock-car racing's top circuit since 1971.
The millions of dollars the tobacco company has poured into NASCAR over the years are a big reason these drivers now resemble corporate businessmen more than the backwoods moonshiners who built the sport more than a half-century ago.
Good business sense has made NASCAR the fastest-growing sport in America in the past decade. Things are going so well that, even in rough economic times, hardly anyone at media day thought NASCAR will have trouble finding a new sponsor.
"I'd say it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone out there," Pyne said.
Based on merchandise sales, TV viewership and attendance, NASCAR claims it is the third most popular sport in the country, behind the NFL and NBA. It is starting the third of a six-year, $2.8 billion TV deal that helped spawn a 58 percent rise in ratings, according to NBC Sports.
The keystone is the Daytona 500, which takes place on Feb. 16.
Once a quaint little race actually held on the beach in this central-Florida town, it long ago moved to the 200,000-seat megaplex that is closer to the interstate than the ocean, and a world away from what stock car racing used to be.
Media day is now the unofficial beginning of the buildup that lasts 10 days (three days longer than the lead-up to the Super Bowl), all part of a festival of races called Speed Weeks.
The Daytona 500 champion will earn about $1.5 million and the prestige that goes along with winning NASCAR's biggest race.
"I heard someone say they had asked a driver what was so special about the Daytona 500 and the answer was `It wasn't that special,'" Dale Jarrett said. "Well, obviously they were talking to somebody who hasn't won the race."
Jarrett, the race champion in 1993, '96 and 2000, is back and trying to win the Winston Cup championship for the second time in four years.
Fresh off a fourth-place finish last year and a messy divorce, Jeff Gordon is another favorite.
Mercurial defending champion Tony Stewart claims he's shaped up his act and that "I will be happiest when everybody quits asking me if I'm happy."
Rusty Wallace has never won at Daytona. As a tribute to the mass-marketing event NASCAR has become, Wallace's sponsor, Miller Light, has promised to give a free six-pack to all legal drinkers at the race if he takes the checkered flag.
"I think you'd see an awful lot of doctors visits if we did a deal like that," said Mark Martin, whose No. 6 car is sponsored by Viagra.
Other issues on the 2003 ledger include the partial closing of the garage area to fans, who have had free reign in there for years.
In the old days, unfettered garage access was one of the most fetching notions about this sport — the idea that the average fan could mingle with stars and ask for autographs, sometimes just minutes before the competition.
Also in 2003, Ricky Rudd starts driving for Wood Brothers Racing, effectively trading places with Elliott Sadler, who will drive for Rudd's old employer, Robert Yates. A byproduct of that move: For the first time in more than a decade, the famed No. 28 car — the one with the Texaco logo once driven by the late Davey Allison — won't be on the track.
Wallace and teammate Ryan Newman have traded in their Fords for Dodges.
Not that it will make as big a difference; NASCAR has adopted basic body templates that must fit all makes of cars, meaning the small differences between the makes will grow even more minuscule.
Of course, all those changes pale in comparison to what could happen if the tobacco deal ends. RJR's contract runs out in 2007, and if the company is serious about moving on, the top series in NASCAR will no longer be known as Winston Cup.
A reason to panic? Probably not, the businessmen-drivers insist.
"I see some bumps and some obstacles they'll have to negotiate around," Martin said. "But major problems? I just don't see it."