Top Story, No Butts About It

The most significant motor sports event of the year didn't occur at a racetrack, but in a boardroom in Reston, Va., where a decision was reached that was announced June 19 at Nasdaq headquarters in New York.

Winston, the flagship of NASCAR's premier racing series for 33 years, was leaving the sport, to be replaced by Nextel, a wireless communications company.

The end to one of sports' most lucrative sponsorships was forced by an agreement signed in June 1997 between the tobacco industry and states' attorneys general that will end all tobacco sponsorships by 2006. Although Winston could have stayed on until then, its parent company, R.J. Reynolds, asked to leave early, in part because of flagging cigarette sales.

The arrival of Winston in 1971 proved to be one of those magic business deals that benefited both parties beyond their wildest dreams.

When Junior Johnson, the legendary bootlegger turned race car driver, approached old friend Ralph Seagraves about a possible "couple of hundred thousand bucks" to finance his team, NASCAR was a struggling stock car series.

RJR needed help too. An earlier ruling had banned all tobacco advertising on television, leaving the company with millions of dollars in advertising revenue with no place to spend it.

When Seagraves informed Johnson that what he wanted was peanuts, that RJR was looking for bigger fish, Johnson sent him to Bill France, founder of NASCAR. That meeting led to the first major non-automotive sponsorship in motor racing's history.

The first announcement was of a $100,000 point fund, with $40,000 going to champion Richard Petty. To compare, the point fund this year is $17 million, with champion Matt Kenseth getting $4.25 million.

Seagraves, a gregarious and persuasive man who had lobbied government leaders in Washington before returning home to Winston-Salem, N.C., hired two young men just out of college, Jeff Byrd and T. Wayne Robertson, and went to work.

"The first thing Ralph did was to take at look at the tracks where NASCAR ran and decided most of them needed sprucing up," recalled Byrd, now president of Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. "That meant buying a lot of red and white paint -- thousands of gallons of it -- and giving the tracks a first-class appearance. Ralph was always insistent that image was important."

Seagraves, who died in 1998, was not one to be easily embarrassed. He insisted, when the Winston Cup was in its infancy, that his aides join him in wearing outlandish all-red uniforms with white stripes down the pant legs with slogans on them.

"It was bad enough to wear them around the racetrack, but can you imagine how we felt walking through an airport or into a nice hotel lobby looking like a Roman candle?" Byrd said.

Despite dressing like a walking Winston advertisement, Seagraves told his associates that if he heard one of them asking a reporter, or anyone associated with racing, to mention Winston in a story or on the air, they would be fired.

"We got knocked off TV because we were too apparent," he said. "We want our message now to be more subliminal."

Seagraves also insisted on giving NASCAR a national image. His first major step was to move the annual awards banquet from Daytona Beach, Fla., to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

In 1971, of the 48 races, 40 were in the South. There were three in California -- two at Riverside and one at Ontario -- and two in Michigan, two in New York and one in New Jersey. Gradually, new venues opened in Arizona in 1988, Northern California in 1989, New England in 1993 and the coup of all, Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.

It all worked. The Winston name became commonplace on nearly every story involving stock car racing and every time it was mentioned it was also a plug for NASCAR. And stock car racing became so popular that NASCAR brokered a $2.8-billion contract with Fox and NBC/TNT three years ago.

"Winston Cup racing was unquestionably the most cost-effective campaign in advertising history," Dr. Alan Blum, director of the University of Alabama's Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, told the Orlando Sentinel. "No brand of any product got more mileage at a cheaper rate than RJR did with NASCAR."

So now it's all over, or at least it will be after next Friday night's banquet in New York.

When NASCAR reassembles at Daytona Beach in February, it will be Nextel Cup time. Curiously, NASCAR will have a new president, Brian France, just as it did when Bill France turned the reins over to Bill Jr., Brian's father, shortly after RJR and Winston arrived.

And only time will tell where Brian France and Nextel will take NASCAR. The communications giant has committed between $600 million and $750 million over 10 years, but money was only part of RJR's legacy. Its biggest contribution came in support from its people taking a personal interest in the sport.

The transfer from Winston to Nextel was the story of 2003. What Nextel has planned for NASCAR may be the story of 2004.

Ticklish Toyota

There is no denying that Toyota meets the primary Winston Cup regulation, that its cars be "American-made steel bodied passenger car production sedans."

And there is no denying that Toyota is on its way up the NASCAR ladder, having won its first Goody's Dash series, sponsored a national NASCAR short-track championship, and built its first Tundras for the Craftsman Truck series that will debut in February in Daytona.

But it's still a Japanese label, and that doesn't sit well everywhere. "It's gonna be good and it's gonna be bad ... ," is how Ford team owner Jack Roush characterized it.

"It's gonna be good because it will bring some sponsors that will have products that will enrich the teams and the series. More teams will be able to be adequately funded.

"I don't think it's good for our economy. I've enjoyed the fact that NASCAR has been a place where the red, white and blue Americans could show preference over the products produced by their peers. Even though these Japanese companies, Toyota in particular, may have factories in the United States that use American workers, it's Japanese capital, and the returns on the investment and all those things that wind up building the economy and building the country and building companies -- all of that winds up serving an overseas interest and not our own.

"There will be a significant backlash between fans that say Toyota shouldn't be here because it's bad for our economy and feel like myself that are more nationalistic than some of our population and some of our fans."

Last Laps

The sixth annual Day in the Dirt, a weekend event honoring stunt men and women, along with motocross riders and race car drivers, will take place today through Sunday at the L.A. County Raceway in Palmdale.

The feature event is the Westlake Grand Prix, a motorcycle race pairing two-man teams gathered from extreme athletes, racers and anyone involved with the stunt industry. The race is 2 1/2 hours, with Hollywood special effects such as rain, wind and smoke as hazards.

Produced by stuntmen Kenny Alexander and Jimmy Roberts, it has attracted such personalities as Jeremy McGrath, Paul Tracy and Academy Award winner Kathy Bates. Details: (661) 263-8722.

Vintage-car buffs can enjoy a weekend with racing legend Walt James at the Walt James track in Willow Springs Motorsports Park. On hand will be pre-1980 sprint cars, midgets, stock cars and roadsters.

John Force will host his annual holiday car show to benefit CHiPs for Kids on Dec. 7, at his racing headquarters at 22722 Old Canal Road, Yorba Linda. Details: (714) 921-8123.

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