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Tuesday, February 4
Updated: February 6, 5:39 PM ET
RJR may follow Union 76 out of sport
By Robin Miller
R.J. Reynolds and NASCAR recently announced this year's Winston Cup point fund will be a record $17 million. What they didn't say was that whoever snares the $4,250,000 for first place in 2003 may also be the final Winston Cup champion.
ESPN.com has learned that R.J. Reynolds is seriously looking at ending its long and rich association with the stock car world after 33 years. This follows by just a few days Union 76's announcement that it would cease its 50-year relationship as NASCAR's official fuel and oil. A top-level source inside the tobacco industry and another source close to the situation said RJR is prepared to shut down this remarkable partnership and that NASCAR is already pursuing a replacement.
"There are five years left on the contract, but RJR would walk away as the title sponsor if a suitable replacement could be found," said the source, who requested anonymity. "With all the lawsuits and litigation surrounding the tobacco industry now, Winston feels like it's time to step aside.
"And NASCAR is actively looking for a new title sponsor."
UPS, Coca-Cola and McDonald's are thought to be very interested in hitching their wagon to the marketing monster that has become NASCAR.
"We just re-established our relationship with R.J. Reynolds and we look forward to continuing our long-standing and beneficial relationship," said NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter when asked about the possibility of losing NASCAR's sponsorship.
Asked if NASCAR had a waiting list of potential title sponsors in the event RJR did bail before its contract expired, Hunter said:
"In a hypothetical world, if the need ever came, we think it's a pretty good property."
Denny Darnell, senior manager of media relations for Sports Marketing Enterprises, denied the report had any validity.
"That would be a shock in that we have a 33-year relationship with NASCAR and we have a multiyear contract with NASCAR," said Darnell, whose agency handles all of RJR's involvement with the series that has exploded into the national consciousness the past decade.
"Our intentions are to continue to grow with NASCAR in the future."
But an RJR official lent some validity on Wednesday to the possibility of a withdrawal from NASCAR.
"Since (signing an extension with NASCAR), our business dynamics have changed dramatically,'' president of RJR's Sports Marketing Enterprises division Ned Leary said after the initial report was posted on ESPN.com. "In our ongoing conversations with NASCAR, we have discussed the potential of their exploring a new series sponsor at some time in the future."
NASCAR vice president George Pyne said the sanctioning body enjoys its relationship with the tobacco company, but is now looking at future opportunities with other companies.
"Through the years we've had one of the best partnerships in sports," Pyne said. "But through their changing dynamics, they've told us that if there is an option that would be in the best of our industry, we should take that into consideration."
Pyne said he fully expected RJR to fulfill its five-year contract extension.
NASCAR's drivers, teams and partners have reaped the rewards of an estimated $100 million in purse, bonus and point fund money since becoming the Winston Cup Series in 1971.
Rusty Wallace also reacted with disbelief, but said replacing RJR would be nearly impossible.
"First of all, I've never heard one word on the subject of RJR leaving and I'd have a hard time believing it," replied the 1989 Winston Cup champ. "The Union 76 thing was a big surprise, but this would be a shocker.
"To lose a sponsorship like Winston would be catastrophic."
Wallace knows firsthand all the little things RJR has done throughout the years.
"When a lot of us were coming up we didn't have anything and Winston would buy us uniforms. If you were a little stock car track Winston would supply all the paint so we had all these red and white tracks across the country.
"I mean they did so many good things for so many people."
Winston, which ended its sponsorship of the National Hot Rod Association and professional golf in order to comply with the Master Settlement Tobacco Agreement, dropped NASCAR's No Bull 5 Program for 2003 after a five-year run. That was a bonus program that offered $1 million to a driver and a NASCAR fan in five selected events.
RJR also continues to sponsor NASCAR's Winston West stock car series.
While the Indy Racing League has failed to keep its title sponsors (Pep Boys and Northern Light) and is currently seeking one, Championship Auto Racing Teams had PPG Industries during 1979-96, FedEx during 1997-2002 and now has Bridgestone and Ford. After losing Winston, the NHRA acquired POWERade last year.
But no racing series can approach the numbers (years and dollars) that NASCAR has had with Winston.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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