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Woody: Gentleman, Start Your Commercials

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 1 2011

NASCAR was ahead of its time by placing corporate logos on cars, drivers and speedways. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

When I began covering NASCAR in the early 1970s, lots of folks poked fun at the commercialization of the sport.

They called the decal-plastered cars “billboards on wheels.” They smirked at the quilt-work of logos on drivers’ uniforms.

They snickered at races named after corporate sponsors, such as the Hooters 500 that came along later.

As it turned out, NASCAR was simply ahead of its time, and other sports quickly scrambled to jump aboard the corporate gravy train. Now almost every “mainstream” sports arena and event is named after a sugar daddy sponsor. From pro golf tournaments to college football bowls, everybody is cashing in. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Nike is an NCAA sponsor or the other way around.

The same goes for “mainstream” media outlets that once scoffed at stock car racing’s shameless shilling. The paper I worked for had a policy against using a corporate brand name in a story. A Coke was a “soft drink.”

But NASCAR’s growing popularity forced the media to provide more and more coverage, and NASCAR

Other sports no longer make fun of NASCAR and its commercialization. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

out-smarted the bean-counters in the newsrooms.

It named its races, its venues, even its divisions of racing after corporate brands.

How could you write about the Winston Cup Series and not mention Winston? Or cover the Busch Series without plugging a certain brand of brew?

And if the official name of the race was the Hooters 500, you couldn’t very well avoid using “Hooters” in the story.

My rival Nashville paper, The Banner, fought it for awhile before surrendering. It insisted the Winston 500 at Talladega be referred to as the “Talladega 500.” But it wasn’t the same race; as someone pointed out to the editor, every horse race run in Kentucky is not  the Kentucky Derby. The paper eventually gave in.

My old paper, The Tennessean, gave ground equally grudgingly. From a strict “no brand-name policy,” it relented to allow the mention of a brand name one time in each story. I could call the Winston 500 the “Winston 500” one time, then in future references it had to be simply “the race in Talladega.”

Now newspapers have come full-circle on such ethical fastidiousness; not too long ago my old paper ran the NCAA Tournament bracket as part of a Pizza Hut ad.

The line between reporting and commercials has become blurred, and once again – for better or worse – NASCAR is leading the way.

During a race on ESPN, sponsored in part by the Green Hornet movie, the announcer said it was going back to green “brought to you by the Green Hornet.”

There is an ongoing issue about what to call a specific race. TV, which sells its own commercials, may balk at giving the track’s race sponsor a free on-air plug.

It’s a slippery slope – separating editorial content from commercials – and once you start sliding down it’s hard to stop. A perfect example is my old newspaper, which went from a strict “no brand-name policy” to peddling its NCAA bracket to a pizza company.

Race drivers, of course, know which side their bread is buttered on. That’s why they always thank the bread company, along with the folks who make the butter.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 1 2011
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