Would Winston really drop NASCAR?
by Pete McCole

February 6, 2003

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Still reeling from the loss of longtime fuel sponsor ConocoPhillips, NASCAR might now face the possibility of having to find a new title sponsor for the Winston Cup Series.

The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which through its Winston brand has sponsored the series since 1971, has been in discussion with NASCAR regarding the company’s future involvement in the series, and possibly leaving the sport altogether.

R.J. Reynolds recently signed a five-year deal to continue to back the series last July.

Officials at R.J. Reynolds denied rumors that they were considering a change, but Ned Leary, President of Sports Marketing Enterprises for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, couldn’t rule out the idea of R.J. Reynolds ending its partnership with NASCAR before that contract expires.

"Since that time (we signed the new contract), our business dynamics have changed dramatically.” Leary said, “In our ongoing conversations with NASCAR, we have discussed the potential of their exploring a new series sponsor at some time in the future.”

In addition to sponsoring the Winston Cup and providing a point fund for the series, R.J. Reynolds is also title sponsor of NASCAR’s all-star event, The Winston.

Still weathering the storms of lawsuits and litigations brought on by tobacco users as well as government restrictions on advertising, R.J. Reynolds has backed away from several sports ventures that they had previously sponsored. Most notably R.J. Reynolds discontinued sponsoring the National Hot Rod Association last year in part to comply with those restrictions.

More recently, R.J. Reynolds eliminated the NASCAR No Bull 5 program, which awarded $1 million bonuses to drivers, as well as lucky fans chosen to participate.

The departure of R.J. Reynolds would represent a heavy blow to NASCAR. Having gained more popularity than ever in the past few years, NASCAR has seen several high-dollar sponsors leave the sport as companies struggle to survive in today’s economy. Other racing series, including the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams, have also faced the problem of finding new title sponsors for their series in recent years.

Several reports have suggested NASCAR is already looking for a new title sponsor, with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s topping the list of potential sponsors should R.J. Reynolds bow out.

Until that time comes, Leary said R.J. Reynolds would continue to work with NASCAR.

"We have always worked with NASCAR and others to do what was in the best interest of this great sport,” said Leary. “As the series sponsor, we will continue our work to grow this sport."

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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