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NASCAR Pins Its Hopes On Nextel

Add another chore to those busy NASCAR drivers: remembering who is footing the bill.

Beginning in 2004, there'll be no more Winston Cup for stock car racing's elite. Telecommunications giant Nextel is plunking down for a ten year, $700 million deal to sponsor NASCAR's premier series.

"I think the drivers are going to have to start practicing calling it the Nextel Cup instead of the Winston Cup," Johnny Benson said Thursday. "It's going to be funny to see how many times we mess that up.

"Nextel will be cool. I expect they will do a good job promoting us and help us reach even more fans. I think having a company like Nextel make the commitment it has made speaks volumes about how much NASCAR has grown and is respected in the corporate world."

So respected that when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco indicated in February it wanted out of the contract, NASCAR had no problem filling the void.

RJR, citing marketing restrictions and an uncertain business climate in the tobacco industry, spent about $45 million a year through its Winston brand and sponsored the circuit for 32 years. A half-dozen major companies expressed interest in replacing RJR, but NASCAR vice president George Pyne said Nextel offered what the racing organization was seeking.

"Nextel has the highest profit margin in their category and they are recognized as No. 1 in America in the telecommunications industry," Pyne said. "This is a strategic decision to go into the telecommunications area."

It also means the hugely popular series, which draws television ratings second only to the NFL and regularly has crowds above 100,000, can reach a demographic previously difficult to attain.

"They market to children and families, a market that is untapped," Pyne said. "This is a category for us where the opportunities are limitless."

Nextel will pay $40 million a year in rights fees and will spend another $30 million a year promoting the series, an industry source close to the negotiations told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The company also receives series exclusivity in telecommunications, although Alltel and Cingular Wireless, which already are involved in Winston Cup, will be allowed to remain.

Nextel CEO Tim Donahue encourages that.

"NASCAR is built on competition and we welcome it," he said.

NASCAR's other two national series, Busch and Craftsman Truck, will retain their sponsors.

Nextel has the largest all-digital wireless network in the country. It also has some marketing involvement with the NFL, NHL and major league baseball.

The NASCAR Nextel Cup should bring the wireless communications leader "significantly more" than the $160 million worth of media exposures Winston got in 2002 during broadcasts on Fox, NBC and TNT, according to Joyce Julius and Associates, which does independent sponsorship evaluation.

Beginning in 2004, Nextel will apply its technology to communications between drivers and their teams, and to enhancing the fan's experience at the tracks and while watching at home.

"I can't see anybody not getting excited about such a large step forward for the sport," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's a grand move. This solidifies for a lot of the young drivers the future in our sport. It shows we haven't reached our peak yet. It's not even in sight."

Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were on hand for the announcement in a conference room at Times Square. Both were given cell phones with their car number and paint scheme on it - the kind of item Nextel is certain to make readily available soon.

By Barry Wilner