Smokin’: Winston drove NASCAR for 33 years

Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s hard to deny that one of the biggest payoffs in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its cigarette brand winston was .

When federal legislation wrecked television cigarette advertising, RJR shifted its millions from the subway to the racetrack, forever changing NASCAR and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.

From 1971 through 2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the strongest sponsorship relationships in professional sport history, with each entity nurturing one another as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.

Although huge superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in a different time as the calendar turned to the 1970s. For an organization that had hinted at being inducted into the big leagues of professional sports and was longing for some television exposure that could get it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and catered to shorter, smaller tracks with less or not tied to any national effect.

When RJR signed the dotted line to become the main sponsor of the top-level series in 1971, the Grand National’s name changed to Winston Cup Grand National (and later simply Winston Cup), but the title’s development hardly scratched the surface of the coming shifts. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR made major changes to the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to focus on a streamlined “national” schedule to focus on major events and a year-long march punctuated to a driving championship.

Thus began the 1972 season with 31 races on the schedule, reduced dramatically from 48 in 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was active.

Great things were about to happen. Reynolds has poured millions into speedway improvements, from the largest tracks to the smallest. Red and white paint (unsurprisingly Winston’s colors) has been spray-painted on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that have fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting racing were placed in communities near racetracks.

As purses grew at Cup Series tracks, RJR added incentives, increased end-of-season point money and developed programs such as the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver for winning three of the sport’s biggest races at the time : the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (in Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.

The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although the name and format have changed over the years.

Perhaps most importantly, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-savvy promotion of NASCAR, which had a very limited PR and communications presence – both human and financial – in the early 1970s. RJR employed dozens of PR and marketing individuals in its NASCAR operations, bringing a level of professionalism and thoroughness rarely found in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.

“I’ve been in this sport for over 50 years and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “The entry of RJ Reynolds was certainly one of the biggest. They brought color and buildings and brought media from across the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back then – stuff we never had before.”

Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, became NASCAR’s virtual PR headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, typically working during the Christmas holidays to have updated issues ready for January distribution. Winston instituted weekly phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media with little interest in NASCAR to cover races, and developed fan experiences such as the Winston Cup Preview, an annual event in January where drivers signed autographs for fans in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, gave , arena.

RJR was also instrumental in moving the NASCAR Cup Series’ annual season-ending awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, a change that brought the sport and its drivers to the media capital of the world for some time in late fall world brought days.

Bill Elliott celebrates winning the Winston Million Bonus on September 1, 1985 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

“Everyone at NASCAR recognizes the role Winston has played in promoting the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that sport was a great vehicle to promote the product. So many other companies have recognized the opportunities to use sport to promote their products. It all made it grow and grow.”

As RJR’s influence on the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (ranging from the Cup Series to weekly tracks featuring NASCAR affiliations) were dotted with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans attending the tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared at circuit parades before races and at events in cities where races were held.

Winston’s name and colors seemed to be everywhere in and around the tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you could be converted if you’re there all day; and if you’ve been a smoker but used a competing brand, consider switching. Winston’s presence was overwhelming.

As a former RJR employee put it, “It was all about moving the sticks,” a house slang term for cigarettes.

“We’ve always strived to outperform Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data showing company management that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”

RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all kinds of activities. Company-sponsored race week golf events brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others related to the track. Winston representatives would treat drivers and their team members to dinners during race weeks, often with a four-figure check.

Jimmy Spencer #23

In April 1999, Jimmy Spencer drives a Winston-sponsored Ford for practice laps at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport)

RJR frequently scheduled events that brought together riders and members of the media to improve relations between the two. During race week in Talladega, a skeetshooting competition in Winston resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he subsequently examined his rifle closely.

Winston employees have been involved in nearly all official – and some not so official – operations related to race weekends. At Pocono a year ago, several Winston employees were essentially creating a new exit route through a nearby wooded area, aware of the traffic difficulties associated with leaving the track after races.

RJR’s ties to NASCAR included driver and team sponsorship. Longtime Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams with Winston and Camel cigarette sponsorships.

“They were probably the best sponsor I’ve ever raced for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what was important. They were all about publicity and all about the fans. That made the sport grow. It will never be as big as theirs. I remember (since NASCAR President) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”

The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who oversaw operations for years as Winston’s presence grew significantly.

“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” said Spencer. “Everyone around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to assume that they were there, to help.” We don’t want to be bullies,” he said. “We want to take it to the next level.”

Some insiders predicted that Robertson, widely respected in motorsport and sports marketing, would eventually move into a management role at NASCAR. Tragically, he died in a boating accident in 1998 at the age of 47.

RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who progressed to more important roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS President, Ty Norris left RJR to manage Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and is now President of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming President of Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who managed sports operations for RJR, became president of Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling French family. Jeff Byrd, who worked in media at RJR, became President of Bristol Motor Speedway.

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