NASCAR has a smoking problem.
In the last quarter-century, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has helped take stock car racing from a Southern delicacy to a burgeoning national industry called the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
President Clinton wants to put a dent into that relationship.
Last week, Clinton reignited the debate over smoking in stock car racing by proposing to forbid tobacco sponsorship of sporting events. His purpose: to reduce smoking by teens.
The plan would still allow companies to sponsor games, races or tournaments, but using only the name of a corporation - not that of a cigarette or other tobacco product.
That would force NASCAR to change the name of the Winston Select, a mid-May race at Charlotte, N.C., and the Winston Select 500, the late-April event at Talladega, Ala.
The IndyCar series would have to drop Marlboro 500 as the name of its race at Michigan International Speedway, site of Sunday’s NASCAR Goodwrench 400.
Grazing in the middle of the controversy is Smokin’ Joe, the cartoon camel used by R.J. Reynolds to promote the Camel cigarette brand. NASCAR’s Smoking Joe, a Camel-sponsored race team, fields a Ford driven by Jimmy Spencer, an investment of several million more dollars each year.
Anti-smoking advocates charge Joe with luring teens and pre-teens into smoking. Reynolds executives fear that anti-smoking factions won’t stop until tobacco gets out of racing.
“Winston has been a sponsor of NASCAR for 25 years,” said Nat Walker, vice president of sports marketing for R.J. Reynolds. “And it’s clear this sponsorship doesn’t contribute to youth smoking in any significant way.”
A recent government-funded survey, Walker said, indicates that Winston “is barely a blip on the radar screen of underage smokers.” According to Walker, Winston was the brand of choice for 1.2 percent of underage smokers.An estimated 46 million Americans are smokers.
Although other sports such as rodeo and drag racing would be affected by Clinton’s proposal, none has nearly as much invested as NASCAR. R.J. Reynolds became the circuit’s title sponsor in 1971, the year after Congress banned tobacco ads on TV and radio.
RJR anted up $100,000 to the series’ 1971 point fund, with $40,000 going to title winner Richard Petty. This year’s fund is $3.5 million, $1.3 million of which goes to the champ.
With Clinton’s announcement began a 90-day period intended for public reaction and comment before the Food and Drug Administration begins considering how the new rules would be implemented. RJR filed suit last week to prevent Clinton’s plan from taking effect.
Former three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, among others, said the Clinton proposal smacks of a government attempt to run the lives of its citizens.
“It’s a legal product that the government subsidizes through farm programs in North Carolina, my native Kentucky, Virginia and every state where tobacco is grown,” Waltrip said. “Where does government responsibility begin and personal responsibility end?”
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