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Smoke 'em if you got 'em
How, exactly, did a cigarette company get involved with NASCAR in the first place? And what happens to all of all of that old Winston Cup memorabilia now? A lawsuit might decide.
Last August, I got an email from a producer at Fox Sports. He was making a documentary about the North Wilkesboro Speedway, and since I’d written about the place extensively, he asked if I’d participate. Sure, I told him, as long as we can do it somewhere close by. I suggested the Winston Cup Museum in Winston-Salem. Seemed like an appropriate place. Plus, I’d never been there before and figured this was a good excuse to check it out.
After the interview, I started talking with a guy named Colbert Seagraves, the museum’s executive director. His dad was Ralph Seagraves, the late R.J. Reynolds Tobacco executive who was mostly responsible for creating the NASCAR partnership with Winston cigarettes. He seemed interesting, and so when Our State asked if I’d write something for an advertising-related issue they were planning, I thought of Colbert. It was the biggest and most North Carolina-ey sports marketing deal I could think of.
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I did a bunch of research and talked with Colbert, and the result is a story called “Tobacco Roar,” which is out now. You can read it in full by tapping on the button below:
In short, RJR and other tobacco companies were banned from directly advertising on TV in 1970, but still had tens of millions in marketing dollars to spend. So to get around the law, RJR decided to put tons of money into sponsoring a sport that was, at that time, occasionally televised. Hence, the Winston Cup was created. At the time, NASCAR and its teams were financially struggling, and RJR realized that it’d be throwing its money away unless it made stock car racing more popular. So, they helped bring eight racetracks back from the brink of bankruptcy, and took steps to make the sport more exciting to watch on TV:
Television didn’t truly capture the speed of race cars that could hit 190 miles per hour at Talladega and Daytona. The long lenses on cameras made the cars look slow. So to convey the appearance of speed, RJR asked tracks to paint their single-colored walls with red and white stripes, which would whiz past in the background. The word “Winston” also appeared on the wall every 100 yards or so.
Winston’s title sponsorship of NASCAR ended in 2003, but the words “Winston Cup” are now shorthand for the golden age of stock car racing—a time that began with Richard Petty and ended not long after the death of Dale Earnhardt. That era still carries weight: When a promoter ran late model races at North Wilkesboro last year, the advertisements and signage used the old Winston Cup era font and color scheme. A large Winston Cup mural is so beloved at the track that it’ll be saved (because of tobacco advertising regulations, it can’t be touched up with paint, but it can be preserved under historic preservation rules).
Yes, I recognize the problem here: That it’s possible to look back very fondly at an era of that sport that was supported and subsidized by a product that still remains the leading cause of preventable death in this country. And since this story went to press at Our State, a new issue has arisen. During my tour of the place back in December, Colbert had mentioned that RJR had donated a lot of the memorabilia in there, like trophies, ads, banners, and so on.
Colbert also mentioned that the museum’s owner, Will Spencer, now holds the “Winston Cup” trademark. I did a quick trademark search, and that part appears to be true: Spencer has had control of it since last March (other “Winston Cup” trademarks once held by R.J. Reynolds are now listed as expired or dead). But! The company that swallowed up R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, ITG, is suing the museum, saying actually, that’s our stuff! Per the Winston-Salem Journal:
According to the lawsuit, Spencer is alleged to have claimed that Reynolds “gifted them absolute title to the Winston Cup artifacts.”
ITG alleges that Spencer “attempted to extort ITG into providing him with a windfall profit for ITG’s use of the Winston Cup artifacts.” The parties negotiated over access to the artifacts before ending talks in March.
The museum’s president told the Journal that the lawsuit was “disappointing.”
In any event, that old-school NASCAR nostalgia is about to make a comeback. As we speak, the North Wilkesboro Speedway is undergoing a furiously fast renovation to get it ready for the All-Star Race in May, an event that hadn’t even been announced when I first sat down to talk with Fox Sports last August (the documentary will also be out in May, I’m told). If you grew up during the golden era of NASCAR, those memories might live on in your heart. Whether the Winston Cup Museum can hold on to the memorabilia from that era is a different story.