- Originally, RJR wanted to sponsor one of the top teams in NASCAR, namely that of Junior Johnson.
- Winston and RJR had no compulsion against spending from what often seemed like an unlimited wallet.
- With the inability to advertise anymore on TV, RJR and Winston took what had been its massive TV marketing budget and chose to spend it in NASCAR.
After more than 20 years as a primarily Southeast-based racing organization, NASCAR entered the 1970s needing a cash infusion to help pay for increased costs of racing.
At the same time, tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds—RJR for short—was looking for a sports entity it could sponsor and attach to its hallmark cigarette brand at the time, Winston, after the federal government had banned cigarette advertising on television.
Originally, RJR wanted to sponsor one of the top teams in NASCAR, namely that of Junior Johnson. But the selfless Johnson decided the Winston money and influence would be better served with the series as a whole, rather than just for his team.
As a result, Johnson put NASCAR president Bill France Jr. and RJR sports executive Ralph Seagraves together—and the rest became history, as the NASCAR Grand National Series became the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series, which would eventually be shortened to just the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
With the inability to advertise anymore on TV, RJR and Winston took what had been its massive TV marketing budget and chose to spend it in NASCAR—and spend it did, with massive promotions including the “Winston Million,” which gave any team that won three of four marquee events—the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500—in the same season a bonus of a cool $1 million bucks.
During that same season, RJR came up with another event that gave $200,000 to the winner of the brand new NASCAR All-Star Race, better known as “The Winston.” RJR also helped significantly raise prize money not only for individual races, but also for Winston Cup championship drivers and teams each season.
Winston and RJR had no compulsion against spending from what often seemed like an unlimited wallet, so to speak. It gave out millions to season champions, convinced NASCAR officials to move the annual post-season Awards Banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, where it stayed for nearly 30 years because RJR felt NASCAR should and would get greater national attention if it held its annual awards ceremony in the media capital of the world.
NASCAR and RJR became one of the most successful and enduring partnerships between a sports series and a major brand, lasting from 1971 through 2003.
Seagraves was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2021.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end and such was the case with the Winston Cup Series. As further governmental legislation squeezed essentially all types of advertising of tobacco-related products completely out of all aspects of sports, RJR told NASCAR in 2002 that it would be ending its 30-plus year sponsorship at the end of the 2003 season.
That, coupled with the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 marked the beginning of a massive downturn in NASCAR popularity over the following years that has never seen a course reversal back to the good old days, so to speak.
Matt Kenseth was the 15th and final NASCAR Winston Cup champion in 2003 before Nextel (eventually switched to Sprint three years later following a merger between the two companies) replaced RJR and Winston as the series’ primary entitlement sponsor in 2004.
NASCAR wasn’t the only sports league to lose a partner from Big Tobacco. Team Penske’s long affiliation with the Philip Morris International’s Marlboro brand in the CART open-wheel series also was eventually forced to go away, as were other minor sponsorships between various teams and tobacco manufacturers.
Without question, NASCAR would never have become the four-wheeled racing behemoth it did, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000s, if it hadn’t of been for RJR’s deep pockets and undeniable support.
It’s likely we’ll never see another racing series partner with a major brand of any type/product that will ever come close to what RJR did for NASCAR and vice-versa.
Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski