With stock car racing's premier series on the verge of opening its 2003 season, R.J. Reynolds announced Wednesday that NASCAR should begin looking for a new sponsor to replace Winston, which has bankrolled the circuit since 1971.
It is estimated that the cigarette manufacturer spends between $30 million and $60 million a year, including promotion of the series, advertising and the points fund.
A sluggish economy resulted in a record fourth-quarter loss by RJR Nabisco. That, coupled with the recent tobacco settlement, led the Atlanta-based company to decide to conclude its highly successful NASCAR sponsorship at the end of the current contract.
"There are some things they can't do, and with our audience getting younger, there are some things they can't do by law, like advertise on TV and radio," France said Thursday as media members began to gather for the activities leading up to the Daytona 500. "As our audience gets younger, they aren't supposed to be advertising to minors.
"I'm not going to get into other companies (to sponsor NASCAR). It's not the right time. If we land on something, you all will be among the first to know. We have five years to do it and who knows after that. We're not concerned about it."
"I think what their release said yesterday is they have initiated conversations with us to see if it made sense for the sport and the entire industry to explore other opportunities that would be in the best interest of all the parties," said George Pyne, NASCAR's chief operating officer.
RJR has not been so much a series sponsor as it has been a partner with NASCAR, helping fuel its rapid growth from a backwoods "hillbilly" sport to the second-most watched professional sports series in the United States.
Now NASCAR must begin finding a new company willing to plunk down the millions of dollars it will cost to become the series sponsor.
"Certainly, over the years, we have been approached by people saying, `If that ever becomes available, we'd like to talk to you about it,'" Pyne said. "We've always said RJR was with NASCAR when it wasn't popular to be with NASCAR, and we're certainly going to reciprocate that spirit.
"Guys remember when tracks needed to be painted and track operators couldn't afford the paint, it was RJR that was there to help buy the paint and do scoreboards. They did a lot of things they didn't have to at a time when nobody else would do that. I would tell you that is a good way to do business. I think we have really appreciated that."
The potential departure of RJR came as a shock to many of the drivers who have become rich from Winston's money.
"I think it does show a lot and says a lot about what NASCAR has done," said 1999 Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett. "You've got to give R.J. Reynolds a lot of credit for helping since 1971. They have helped make this sport what it is today.
"We would move on if that were to happen. Obviously, it would be for the betterment of this sport probably dollar-wise because I would think that's what would make a change."
Ironically, practically every Winston Cup driver is a non-smoker, although they all help promote the series sponsor and its cigarette brand.
"I'm not much into the politically correct thing," Jeff Burton said. "I figure that this is America and that's what makes it a great place to live. If you choose to smoke or whatever it is you choose to do, that's your choice.
"That's why we live where we live because we do have choices. Some people would say that this sport would be best served if we were sponsored by something other than a tobacco or an alcohol product.
"On the other hand, this is a great country that provides freedom and I think the opportunity for every company to have a chance to have their product on a national stage is part of what makes our country work."
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