NASCAR May Leave Tobacco In Dust

Get ready for a change in the look of stock car racing.

Sources say NASCAR has made a deal for wireless communications giant Nextel to replace R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as the title sponsor of NASCAR's premier series, which has been known as the Winston Cup.

Two NASCAR sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Nextel will be introduced Thursday at a news conference in New York's Times Square. NASCAR scheduled what it called a "major news announcement" there Thursday, with chairman Bill France Jr. and top drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to attend. It did not disclose the subject.

Two Winston Cup team sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said NASCAR officials called them Monday to tell them a deal with Nextel was complete.

When Nextel connects with NASCAR starting next season, it will be reaching out to the estimated 75 million fans in more than 100 different countries that follow the sport. It will also be a sponsor capable of advertising and reaching the youthful demographic NASCAR has long pursued.

RJR has been limited in marketing its NASCAR sponsorship by the 1998 settlement of state lawsuits against the tobacco industry. RJR cannot advertise Winston, its top cigarette brand, on radio or television and is expressly forbidden to market to people under 18.

Those limitations and the uncertain business climate in the tobacco industry led RJR in February to give NASCAR permission to look for another title sponsor, despite a five-year contract extension RJR had signed last year.

RJR has been with NASCAR for 31 years, signing in 1972 to take over what was then called the Grand National Series. The company teamed with NASCAR to build the Winston Cup Series into the nation's hottest sports property.

RJR spends anywhere from $30 million to $60 million annually marketing Winston through NASCAR. It's not clear what Nextel, based in Reston, Va., might spend, or what the series will now be called.

One NASCAR source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Nextel's presence will prevent other wireless companies from coming into the sport. Companies with sponsors already on the side of a car, such as Alltel and Cingular Wireless, can continue to be involved, the source said.

It is not clear how the decision would affect AT&T, which is NASCAR's official telecommunications company. AT&T has its own wireless communications division.