WAID’S WORLD: NASCAR’s First Sponsorship Era Was Its Most Enduring

With the passing of Sprint as the sponsor for its elite series, and the coming of Monster Energy Drink, NASCAR moves into a new era – again.

Since 1971 NASCAR has been privileged to have series sponsors that have benefited the sport, its competitors, its speedways and the sanctioning body itself.

I daresay that without these sponsors NASCAR would be a shadow of what it is today. Their contributions helped propel stock car racing forward and greatly influenced its marketing success and once-burgeoning popularity.

Prior to 1971 NASCAR’s top circuit was known as the Grand National Series. To be honest it simply plodded along as the years passed. National attention? Hardly. It was, at best, a regional sport.

It might have crowned a “national” champion but the thinking here is beyond the Mason-Dixon line, few knew him or even NASCAR itself.

The seeds of change were planted in 1971 – and from a most unusual source and set of circumstances.

Hall of Fame driver and team owner Junior Johnson was at a crossroads after the 1970 season. It had been a lackluster year with driver Lee Roy Yarbrough.

In 1971 Johnson and Yarbrough entered just two races, at Daytona and Rockingham, before Johnson stepped aside to build race cars for clients.

He was not about to use his own money to compete. He had to have a sponsor.

As a businessman Johnson was always aware of the economic climate. So it wasn’t hard for him to learn that the federal government had banned all cigarette advertising from television – an action that had been predicted for some time.

An idea went off in Johnson’s head. If cigarette companies could not advertise on TV it meant they had to spend money somewhere.

The headquarters of giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was located in Winston-Salem, N.C., about an hour away from Johnson’s shops in Ronda.

“When I learned what had happened to them I got my butt to Winston-Salem as quick as I could,” Johnson said. It took months.

When it happened Johnson made a good pitch for sponsorship. The Reynolds people were interested. But after some discussion they told Johnson that to support his team would be like dropping a pin in a well. There wouldn’t be much impact.

“They told me they had millions of dollars to spend,” Johnson said. “Now, I wanted some of that. But it occurred to me that if I made a counter proposal, it could benefit NASCAR and everyone in racing – including me.”

So Johnson told the Reynolds people they needed to contact NASCAR’s Bill France Sr. as quickly as they could. They would likely discover they would find the most beneficial way to spend their dollars.

“If I had kept my mouth shut I would have gotten some Reynolds dollars,” Johnson said. “But with the money the company could put behind NASCAR, things could really take off.”

Johnson likely had no idea how right he was.

In 1971 Reynolds, through its Winston cigarette brand, created the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series. It posted a point fund of $100,000 – the largest ever at the time – and the Cup schedule consisted of races over 250 miles in length, although points earned in other events would count.

It grew from there. To expound on everything Reynolds did for NASCAR and all involved is no easy task.

Reynolds was a savvy marketer. It provided free advertising for NASCAR and the Winston Cup Series through newspapers, radio and point-of-sale events.

It offered any speedway free paint jobs for its walls as long as they accepted the red and white Winston colors. Many of them did.

There came show cars and Miss Winston.

Eventually Reynolds created Sports Marketing Enterprises, a separate unit charged with the responsibility of promoting all of the company’s sporting endeavors – which grew to include other NASCAR circuits, drag racing, sports car racing and even rodeo.

It sponsored races at Riverside in California and Talladega. It helped give birth to The Winston, NASCAR’s all-star race that exists to this day, and The Winston Million.

It was largely responsible for the NASCAR Awards Banquet’s move from a hotel in Daytona Beach to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, which gave the ceremony much more sophisticated atmosphere in the world’s leading media market.

And, of course, it helped to increase the point fund by millions over the years.

There’s a lot more – I know I can’t remember everything – but suffice it to say that they Reynolds-NASCAR union proved to be one of most successful in all of professional sports.

It lasted 33 years. It came to an end in 2004 and, I’m sure, for several reasons. One of them had to be the increasingly diminishing market for cigarettes, which had become vilified as causes for several maladies.

The Winston Cup era remains a very big part of NASCAR lore. Even today, many fondly remember the days when the sanctioning body and R.J Reynolds were united.

There is even a Winston Cup Museum in Winston Salem.

Johnson said that with the money R. J. Reynolds could put behind NASCAR, “things could really take off.”

At the time no one could predict how right he would be.



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By Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.