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By Jeff Burk

After 27 years of sponsoring NHRA drag racing (and prior to that IHRA drag racing) the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and their Winston brand will no longer be associated with drag racing.

RJR had to make a choice based on the Master Settlement Agreement hammered out between the U.S. Justice Department and the tobacco companies about which racing organization they would back: NHRA drag racing or NASCAR Winston Cup racing. From a business point of view, they really had no choice. In his press conference announcing RJR's decision, spokesman Rick Sanders basically said that the deciding factor was the number of fans attending Winston Cup races versus NHRA races.

When you think about the fact that NASCAR tracks like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona, Ft. Worth, Charlotte and others have between 150,000 and 250,000 seats and the races attract SRO crowds. NHRA tracks have around 20,000 to 30,000 seats and almost never have a SRO crowd. The Winston people really had no choice.

What wasn't brought up in the July 17th press conference, but certainly had to be a factor in RJR's decision, was that Winston Cup races are broadcast live in prime-time on major networks and attract some of the largest audiences in television history. NHRA's TV package is good but is way behind what the Winston Cup broadcasts have to offer sponsors.

According to the official NHRA statement on RJR's announcement, the National Hot Rod Association has known that RJR was going to make this decision for some time. Although spokesmen from the RJR-owned Sports Marketing Enterprises have been saying since the Master Settlement Agreement was released in 1998 that RJR might find a way to keep sponsoring NHRA drag racing, most sources familiar with the language of the document have been saying since it was signed by RJR that the company would have to sever its relationship with NHRA.

From a business perspective the most ominous omission in both the RJR and NHRA teleconferences concerning Winston's departure from drag racing was the announcement of a replacement title rights sponsor for NHRA drag racing. Apparently, even though NHRA has known for at least two years that there was a very good possibility that RJR would drop their sponsorship of NHRA drag racing, they evidently have been unable to secure a replacement sponsor.


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