Bristol Smoking Ban Irks Some
As NASCAR Goes Mainstream, Tobacco-State Traditions Die Hard

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

BRISTOL, Tenn., March 15 -- Freddie Lochner has done the math, and he likes his chances.

Sunday's NASCAR race will draw roughly 160,000 stock-car racing fans to Bristol Motor Speedway, and there will be 400 ushers directing them to their seats and reminding them, if need be, that smoking is no longer allowed in the grandstands.

Lochner, 39, wouldn't dream of flouting Tennessee's new Non-Smoker Protection Act in a trackside luxury suite. But he thinks it's ridiculous to ban smoking in Bristol's open-air grandstands, which rise 20 stories above the half-mile bullring. And he's betting he won't get busted for taking a drag from his seat on Sunday, just like he has done for years, and letting the evidence waft into the air around him.

"You can drink as much beer as you want and get in your car and drive home, but you can't come in here and smoke a cigarette," Lochner said Saturday, while waiting out a rain delay in the track's concourse. "Now, which would you rather have: A guy smoking a cigarette sitting next to you, or a guy who drunk all that beer driving down the road next to you?"

It's hardly news that smokers are finding fewer places to light up in public. But this is NASCAR, a sport that was bankrolled by R.J. Reynolds's Winston brand for 33 years and has tobacco money and marketing expertise to thank for its dramatic growth.

And this is Tennessee, among the leading tobacco-producing states, where roughly one in four adults smoke.

That very statistic -- specifically, its implications for public health -- is what spurred Tennessee's legislature to enact the most far-reaching anti-smoking law in a tobacco state last October, banning smoking in all enclosed public workplaces and sports arenas.

At the time, Tennessee ranked 47th among the 50 states in terms of health, according to Susan Cooper, the first nurse to be appointed the state's health commissioner. The link to unhealthy behavior -- lack of exercise, poor diet, alcohol consumption and smoking -- couldn't be denied. Nor could the rights of the roughly 75 percent of adults, as well as children, who didn't smoke.

The result was a new law that tripled the tobacco tax, funded anti-smoking programs and banned smoking in enclosed places.

"We know that tobacco is bad for people who use it, but that's their right to smoke," Cooper said. "But secondhand smoke has harmful effects to others who are exposed to it, including pregnant women and children."

At Bristol, track officials had five months to figure out how to apply the law. It was a particularly wrenching process for Jeff Byrd, the speedway's president and general manager, who was reared in Winston-Salem, N.C., and worked in R.J. Reynolds's sports-marketing department for 23 years.

While the ban clearly applied to Bristol's restrooms and suites, it was less clear whether it applied to its grandstands. Byrd consulted with the track's lawyers, as well as his counterparts at the University of Tennessee and the NFL Tennessee Titans. All agreed that it should.

As Byrd explains, Bristol's 150,000 grandstand seats are all reserved, with no general admission available. So a non-smoker who sits next to a smoker can't get up and move to another seat if he wants to avoid his neighbor's secondhand smoke.

"I believe that smokers have rights, too," Byrd said. "I grew up in a town built on tobacco and worked for a tobacco company. But I still believe that's what the law they've passed is meant to do: protect non-smokers. And I think it's our duty to follow the law."

That policy puts Bristol Motor Speedway in line with major league ballparks around the country. But it's out of step with NASCAR tracks in neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina, where fans are still welcome to smoke in the stands.

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway: "Virginia has such a rich history in tobacco, I don't see them banning smoking anytime soon. That was tried recently in the legislature regarding smoking in restaurants but it didn't pass."

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon applauds Bristol's new policy and hopes other tracks follow suit.

"I think it's a smart thing for long-term," Gordon said. "Things are changing. People are focusing more on trying to be healthy, whether it's what they eat or things like smoking."

In his own way, Gordon is a poster boy for how dramatically stock-car racing's relationship with tobacco has changed. He never smoked, but he married a former Miss Winston beauty queen, whose job was to promote the Winston brand among NASCAR fans. Gordon has since divorced and remarried. He has also become a spokesman for Nicorette, an associate sponsor on his No. 24 racecar and "the official smoking-cessation product of NASCAR."

Just a decade or two ago Miss Winston paraded around the grounds and garages of NASCAR tracks handing out free packs of cigarettes to fans, drivers, pit-crew members and journalists alike. And even a few racers, such as David Pearson and Dick Trickle, were known to smoke in their racecars during laps run under the caution flag. It relieved the tension, they said.

"Our sport is transitioning fan bases right now," Byrd said. "We have found out in the last five years that our fan base has become much more sophisticated, much more worldly. They have more life experience than the last generation of fans simply because of the proliferation of major league franchises. The same people who go to FedEx Field come to Bristol Motor Speedway, and we can't suffer by comparison. We have to be just as clean, just as friendly, just as service-oriented and offer the same amenities that National Football League stadiums have. Are we there yet? Not up to the FedEx Field level. But we're gaining."

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