Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Nextel to be new NASCAR sponsor

Cell phone company will replace RJR

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - NASCAR is trading cigarettes for cell phones.

Wireless communications giant Nextel has reached a deal to replace R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as the title sponsor of NASCAR's premier series, the Winston Cup.

Two NASCAR sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Nextel will be introduced Thursday at a news conference in New York's Times Square. NASCAR scheduled what it called a "major news announcement" there Thursday, with chairman Bill France Jr. and top drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to attend.

When Nextel connects with NASCAR starting next season, it will be reaching out to an estimated 75 million fans in more than 100 different countries. It also will be a sponsor capable of reaching the youthful demographic NASCAR has long pursued.

RJR has been limited in marketing its NASCAR sponsorship by the 1998 master settlement of state lawsuits against the tobacco industry. RJR cannot advertise Winston, its top cigarette brand, on radio or television and is expressly forbidden to market to people under 18.

Those limitations and the uncertain business climate in the tobacco industry led RJR in February to give NASCAR permission to look for another title sponsor, despite a five-year contract extension signed last year.

RJR has been with NASCAR for 31 years, signing in 1972 to take over what then was called the Grand National Series.

One NASCAR source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Nextel's presence will prevent other wireless companies from coming into the sport. Companies with sponsors already on the side of a car, such as Alltel and Cingular Wireless, can continue to be involved, the source said.

Alltel sponsors Ryan Newman's No. 12 Dodge for Penske Racing South, and Cingular sponsors Robby Gordon's No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

It's not clear what will happen to The Winston, the annual all-star race held each May. The rights to that event have always been included with the title sponsorship agreement.

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