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Harris: Cup History Has Vanished in Puff Of Smoke

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 19 2011

Winston's influence was inescapable when R.J. Reynolds was title sponsor of NASCAR's top series. Rusty Wallace even celebrated in victory lane in Charlotte with Winston champagne. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The announcement that Richmond International Raceway will ban smoking from its grandstands and portals areas, beginning in the upcoming race season, brought back a lot of smoky memories.

When my career in racing began, R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand was the dominating sponsor in NASCAR.

RJR influenced everything about stock car racing in 1980.

Not only were there always free cigarettes next to the ashtrays in the press box and in the garages, but RJR took the lead in building NASCAR into a mainstream sport, financing and planning new media centers and other infield facilities at racetracks in the 1980s, as well as building the prize fund, and particularly the champion’s payoff, in the elite Cup series to eye-popping numbers.

Ralph Seagraves, the man credited with getting RJR involved in NASCAR, and later, T. Wayne Robertson, who continued that work, represented the tobacco company and became hugely prominent voices in the sport. Some believe that RJR would still be involved in the sport – for better or worse – if the likable and ingenious Robertson had not died in a boating accident in 1998.

In my early days covering the sport, it was common to spend much of my time in the ever-

Benny Parsons and Miss Winston after the 1981 race at Texas World Speedway. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

present cloud of cigarette smoke that hung over the press boxes and the media centers. Despite never smoking a cigarette in my life, I went home each night with my clothes and hair stinking of smoke.

But it was just a fact of life in those days. I, like almost everyone in NASCAR, believed RJR was a positive influence on the growing sport, even if it was selling “cancer sticks’’ or “coffin nails’’ as my heavy-smoking dad liked to call cigarettes.

Nobody, in those days,  would have believed there would come a day when smoking was banned from working press areas at the racetracks, as it is these days.

Of course, RJR is no longer a presence in NASCAR, with Nextel (followed by Sprint) stepping up  in 2004 to fill the void when Winston decided to spend its advertising and promotional millions elsewhere.

For most of the 33 years that Winston was a NASCAR sponsor, it was prohibited by the federal government from advertising on TV or radio. That meant there were only so many people the sponsor – and the sport – could reach.

That all changed when Nextel  took over – a good thing for NASCAR,  at least until the recession hit and blunted the sport’s burgeoning mainstream popularity.

Now we have the Richmond track relegating NASCAR fans who are smokers to the parking lots.

My, how times have changed.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 19 2011
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Mike says:

    It wasn’t so much that RJR took their advertising dollars elswhere. It was the results of Congressional legislation that forced RJR and other tobacco companies out of being able to advertise their products, which included sponsoring events like races, race teams, and racing series.

  • earner says:

    Can’t see any way it will help increase sales but will probably cost the odd seat (diehards) But are we talking parking lot or behind grandstands

  • GinaV24 says:

    Wow, yes, that is a big change for sure. As a non-smoker, it will sure increase my comfort level, but I wonder if it will make some people stay away from the track.