R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is ending its sponsorship of the NASCAR Winston Racing Series, saying it could violate the national tobacco settlement by allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to compete.
RJR's 26-year sponsorship of the series will end after the current racing season, but NASCAR said Tuesday the series will continue under other sponsorship.
RJR said it will continue to sponsor the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and the NASCAR Winston West Series.
The $246 billion settlements reached by tobacco companies with the states requires the companies, among other things, to curb cigarette advertising and launch smoking-prevention campaigns aimed at teen-agers. Cigarette makers also agreed to compensate the states for the cost of treating sick smokers.
The Winston Racing Series is held weekly at nearly 100 paved and unpaved tracks nationwide. Teams of hometown competitors get a chance to attain local, regional and national recognition and a share of a $1.4 million championship fund supported by RJR's Winston brand.
RJR, however, said the series calls into question whether the Winston-Salem-based company is complying with "the letter and the spirit" of the tobacco settlement.
"We have reached the conclusion that the NASCAR Winston Racing Series was unlikely to fulfill the requirements of the master settlement agreement due to longstanding rules regarding driving eligibility," Rick Sanders, president of RJR's Sports Marketing Enterprises, said Tuesday.
Sanders said that, in keeping with the tobacco settlement, RJR this year implemented a temporary modification of racing eligibility rules so drivers under the age of 18 could not earn series points-fund awards.
"It was decided, however, that making permanent rule changes to exclude 16- and 17-year-old drivers from the series, to continue to comply with the MSA (settlement), was not in the best interest of the sport, which serves as the grassroots program for NASCAR," Sanders said.
Tom Deary, vice president of the NASCAR Winston Racing Series, pledged NASCAR's continuing support for the Winston Racing Series.
"The commitment at NASCAR to continue building our short-track program remains as strong as ever," he said Tuesday. "We look forward to moving our program to even higher levels, and continue building a solid weekly program for competitors, promoters and fans."
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