Sunday, June 22, 1997
NASCAR could easily kick habit

The Cincinnati Enquirer

NASCAR could quit tobacco cold turkey. It would miss the aroma of money to burn, and experience some temporary withdrawal at the deposit window, but it would surely survive.

American automobile racing is enamored of cigarette sponsorship, but no longer completely dependent on it. It can kick the habit, if the government insists.

Friday's landmark tobacco settlement has heightened anxieties on the Winston Cup circuit, among Virginia Slims tennis types, and wherever cigarette companies have used sports as a respectable front.

There were the usual vested interests decrying the intrusions of big government in private enterprise. There was some of the standard stupidity from those who value their freedom of choice over your freedom to exist. There were even drivers who waxed sentimental about the same companies that would give their children cancer.

Yet the noise level from the sports smoking lobby is lower this time than it once was. Like the tobacco companies themselves, racing has realized that its future depends on diversification. When the Winston Cup is ended, the show will still go on.

A vehicle for ads

Once dominated by tobacco companies, breweries and auto parts franchises, racing has lately become an advertising vehicle for such consumer staples as cereals, soft drinks and toothpaste. What was once a low-rent regional audience - NASCAR's roots are with moonshine runners - is now amazingly mainstream.

American industry has come to recognize race fans as among the most brand-loyal customers in the country. The same people who cheer Terry Labonte's Kellogg's car on Sunday tend to show their loyalty through corn flakes on Monday morning.

"It's unbelievable the number of brands that are buying into the sport, and the reason they're doing it is that they're buying audience," said Cincinnati sports consultant Don Schumacher. "I haven't seen any tobacco dependency in terms of sponsorship." Schumacher has been commissioned to perform the feasibility study for Jerry Carroll's proposed Northern Kentucky racetrack. His first read on the tobacco settlement did nothing to dissuade him.

"My suspicion is there might be somebody else who would step in to be a non-tobacco sponsor," he said. "I just flipped on the television because I wanted to see what the new California track looked like. Yes there's a Skoal car running in the race, but there's also a Pepsi car, and a Band-aid car."

R.J. Reynolds' annual investment in motorsports is estimated between $25 and $30 million. Marlboro spends more than $10 million per year on Roger Penske's Indy cars. That's a lot of money to be made up. Yet finding investors ought to be easier now than when the Winston Cup series started.

A way around the law

Winston's involvement with NASCAR, it is instructive to point out, began in 1971, the same year cigarette ads were banned from American broadcast mediums. The tobacco companies saw sports as a means to finesse the law and keep their brand names on television.

Thus came the Virginia Slims, the Vantage Cup, the Camel Mud & Monster Series and the Salem Witch Trials. (OK, we exaggerate.) There are people who actually get paid to study tapes of televised races to see how much bang each sponsor is getting for its racing bucks.

With the right car, and the right driver, a company can get a lot of mileage out of a comparatively modest budget. Tobacco companies, with cash to spare and limited advertising alternatives, get more mileage than most. Five of the last nine Indianapolis 500s were won by drivers whose major sponsor makes cigarettes.

The tobacco settlement would serve to close this advertising loophole, and force racing to rely more on its product and less on its ability to circumvent commercial embargoes.

It should be strong enough to survive a little smoke damage.