Cell phone sponsor wars boiling over in NASCAR

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The cellular phone wars continue in the Nextel Cup Series.

AT&T on Friday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta to have its logo replace the Cingular logo on the No. 31 Chevrolet driven by Jeff Burton.

"I wish we didn't have to file suit. We're doing this as a last resort because our talks with NASCAR have not been fruitful."
-- AT&T spokesman Clay Owen

As a part of the 10-year, $700 million contract Nextel -- now Sprint Nextel -- signed in 2004 to sponsor the Cup series, cellular phone competitors not already involved with NASCAR were not permitted to enter the sport.

Alltel and Cingular were grandfathered in and allowed to continue their sponsorships of the No. 12 car of Ryan Newman and No. 31 of Burton. Because AT&T merged with Cingular and the Cingular name is being phased out, NASCAR argues that Cingular no longer is protected.

AT&T spokesman Clay Owen said Nextel's contract with NASCAR says only that a cellular company can't increase its brand position on the car and can't change teams. He said there is nothing in writing that prevents a sponsor from changing its name.

"I think we have a great case," he said Friday. "I wish we didn't have to file suit. We're doing this as a last resort because our talks with NASCAR have not been fruitful.

"We tried to settle this in a friendly way."

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said that he hadn't seen the lawsuit.

"Our position is we don't comment on litigation," he said.

Dean Kessel, Sprint Nextel's director of NASCAR Nextel Cup Series marketing, said in a statement: "To our knowledge, we have not been named in the lawsuit, and at this point it would be premature to comment."

Burton is fearful he could be left without a sponsor for 2008 if a solution isn't reached.

"I will say there's a tremendous amount of effort from AT&T and Cingular to try to get this thing resolved," Burton said. "And by the way, it's something that needs to be resolved. It's got us in a situation we certainly don't want to be in.

"Cingular has been here for a long time. I'd like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable solutions. Changing the name, there has to be a reasonable way to work through that."

Burton said there'll come a point soon when Richard Childress Racing will have to decide whether to continue to fight for Cingular or start looking for another sponsor for next season.

"We can't operate without sponsorships," he said. "Sponsors don't just fall out of trees. We could be in a position of not having sponsorship for '08. That puts me and the whole team in position of deciding what we're going to do.

"I'm sure they don't want to be in that position, especially when they have a company that is willing to step up to the plate and sponsor us for many years in the future."

Robby Gordon, an independent owner, understands. He drove last week's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway without a primary sponsor, and it appeared he would do that again this week after NASCAR forced him to remove the Motorola stickers from his hood Friday.

"There was a list developed that NASCAR agreed upon when we did the contract of specific brand names of telecommunications that were OK or not OK," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "In the case of [Gordon's] car we have one that was particularly on that list."

NASCAR officials agreed to a compromise Saturday.

"We've worked with members of Robby's team to come up with a reasonable paint scheme solution for tomorrow's race," Hunter told The Associated Press. "When the team unloaded here this week, the car had a paint scheme on it that had yet to be approved. Due to the limited time frame, we worked with Robby and his team to come up with a non-wireless solution.

"He will therefore run in tomorrow's race an approved paint scheme carrying a digital audio player Motorola design on the car."

Hunter said Gordon will be allowed to use those logos for the rest of the Cup season.

Gordon was not available for comment Saturday, but he said Friday he didn't understand why Motorola was rejected, because it has a relationship with Nextel.

"They are the provider for phones, etc., to Nextel," said Gordon, who is sponsored by Jim Beam for 12 races. "You go to the front of Nextel.com and you find Motorola phones on there. It's a bit confusing why we're having an issue with the car on the track.

"We tried other ways to accommodate Nextel, including putting their logo on the car. We tried everything to make it work."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.