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Woody: From Tobacco Road To Smoke-Free Racing

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 8 2011

Signs of R.J. Reynolds' involvement with NASCAR were everywhere back when drivers like Jerry Cook were behind the wheel. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

It’s interesting to see a sport that once ran on tobacco fumes come full-cycle with the announcement that Richmond International Raceway will have smoke-free grandstands this coming season.

NASCAR wouldn’t be where it is today without the boost from Big Tobacco. Back in the ‘70s, after the Feds banned tobacco advertising from TV, cigarette companies had hundreds of millions of advertising dollars burning holes in their pockets.

They desperately needed a new marketing outlet. NASCAR turned out to be it.

By most accounts it was Junior Johnson who put RJR in touch with NASCAR, opening the doors to a gold mine and sending the sport on a dizzying rocket ride to the moon.

How dramatic was the RJR influence? NASCAR changed the name of its premier division from Grand National to the Winston Cup Series. At that time such a corporate title sponsor was unheard of.

The Winston logo was everywhere – from the Cup series sponsor to individual race sponsorships (the Winston 500 at Talladega). Winston was splashed on billboards and scoreboards and retaining walls at every track across the country.

A Winston Cup Series patch was prominently displayed on every driver’s uniform and every race car carried a Winston Cup decal. Miss Winston, wearing a Winston cap and Winston dress, welcomed the winner to Victory Circle.

There was even a special $1 million bonus called The Winston Million if a driver could win a number of select races.

The money gushed in and everybody became rich off tobacco – team owners, drivers, administrators, PR companies, track operators. All that advertising dough bought attention, and attention drew fans and sparked unprecedented media coverage.

Pre-Winston, few TV stations gave stock car racing a glance and only a few, mostly Southern, newspapers covered the sport on a serious basis. Suddenly, as Sports Illustrated crowed, NASCAR was the nation’s hottest sport and everybody was clamoring for a piece of the action.

Press boxes became jammed and TV realized what it had been missing – NASCAR races consistently drew the highest sports rating except during the NFL season.

Would NASCAR have grown so big so fast without the Winston gold fueling the frenzy? No way.

And it wasn’t just the direct RJR cash flow that was significant; other companies saw the huge marketing dividends that Winston reaped from its NASCAR affiliation and they wanted in. RJR opened the door to other mega-sponsorships.

Of course we all know what happened: Smoking gradually became un-cool. A more health-conscious society began to take those warning labels seriously. And credible studies proved that second-hand smoke is just as harmful as first-hand smoke.

NASCAR sensed the shift in sentiment and deftly changed with the times. It replaced Winston with wireless communications, going from negative tobacco to popular technology.

Press boxes that were once foggy with smoke began to post No Smoking signs. If someone wanted to puff he or she had to step outside. Now at venues such as Richmond Raceway, even outside is not good enough.

There’s no way to overstate the contribution of tobacco to racing, but times change, and this particular change allows us all to breathe easier.

The Tobacco Era forever shaped NASCAR, but that era is gone forever.

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

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 8 2011
7 Comments

7 Comments »

  • RA Eckart says:

    Sylvia, Terry & Charles. You can still smoke at RIR. IN YOUR SEAT! Richmond has only opened “family friendly” grandstands after every other racetrack in America did the same. No one took your freedom. But you just wanted to be mad about something, right?

    • Charles says:

      I called Richmond Speedway and the main grandstand you cannot smoke!!!!But you can still drink! Unless the person told me wrong!

      Yes I dont like it, smell car exhaust all day long and restricted exhaust!

      An as to your comment on other sports, as soon as Nascar stops following or worry about what other sports or ratings are and focus on what the real problem is then they might grow again!

      Also not only Nascar as far as smoking policy, I mean do you think its okay to have a “Indoor Monster Truck” show and race and not beable to smoke! I mean all the smoke is inside!

      Nascar needs to stop selling 24 oz beers at consession stands if they want to promote a positive image!

    • Terry says:

      “No one took your freedom “….was your statement. FIRST of all I DON’T SMOKE….never have. I am NOT MAD either. I just made the statement that with every MANDATED community change the individual loses a piece of themselves. BUT.. I can still choose to NOT ATTEND a race at RICHMOND. My dollar remains in my pocket.

  • Jim says:

    Yes, Terry you are correct. It won’t be much longer before the Food Police will be wrestling that pulled pork barbecue sandwich from your hands out there under the grandstands and those Bubba Burgers won’t exist any longer.

  • Charles says:

    I totally disagree with Richmonds No Smoking policy!

    This is Nascar and Richmond at is worse!!! and should be called out for this!!!!

    In attending Nascar for over 40 year I have never been offended by anyone smoking ! Infact if you light one up the wind off the racecar soon blow it out!

    IF Nascar or Richmond is so concerned about air we breath are they going to install smog equipment on the race cars??

    The biggest problem fans have at races is “the drunks” selling “24 oz” beers to young people, they when they leave alot will get on the highway! its so bad I think I will tape the parking lot after a race and Utube it to Madd, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving!

    But Richmond will not band drinking in the stands, and they would not have cigarettes as well if that RJR money was still coming in! Beer or alcohol sponsorship or ‘money’ is the only thing they will listen to!

    This is a classic example of how Nascar forgets who made them!
    Add RJR, to N. Wilkesboro, Rockingham, moving Labor Day from Darlington!

    Here NASCAR is on the decline, and they worry about cigarette smoking plus “bannning a legal product” from the grandstands, in order to smell race car exhaust!

    This doesnt even pass the common sense smell test!!!!!

  • This world has gone crazy. from know smoking to the kind of light bulds we have to use…. If i go to a race and pay that kind of money who should tell me i can,t smoke??? motels are way to high and then that tell you can,t smoke.Never been to a race and seen fans fighting over cigs but the drunks sure do fight. Whats next? the food?

  • Terry says:

    Gone forever…..it say’s a lot.
    With today’s mandated lifestyle choices
    seatbelt laws…no smoking…no open container…ect.ect.
    all admitted good ideas….but also at a cost.
    The old schooler’s miss days of self determination and self accountability.
    The freedom of making your own choices was a connection closely held between NASCAR fans and driver-teams….
    FORD or CHEVY…now who can tell?
    Winston or Malboro..Kool or Salem..
    Lucky or Camel..Redman or Beechnut
    …..now Nicorette or joint.
    Bud or Miller..Jack D or Jim B…TN or VA or NC ..moonshine
    now Redbull or Monster
    I guess the “hotdogs” will be gone next.
    It is hard to even argue Kansas City vs. Memphis BBQ without getting a salad lecture from someone.
    Yes it is all for my body’s betterment
    but at a REAL cost to my SOUL.