Woody: From Tobacco Road To Smoke-Free Racing
By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
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 email@example.com Comments