Motor racing's own version of the Berlin Wall will come down on Easter Sunday.
The end of long-dominant tobacco sponsorship in racing worldwide will begin, symbolically at least, with the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. From there, the sea change will go global.
The major American-based leagues -- NASCAR, CART and the IRL -- are off for the holiday. But they are just as sure to be swept up, in time, as Formula One.
BMW-Williams F1, the British-based team run by the gutsiest Englishman since Winston Churchill, quadriplegic Sir Frank Williams, will for the first time carry the sponsorship colors of a line of quit-smoking products.
This flies in the face of F1's hierarchy, which still vehemently opposes the European Union's impending ban on tobacco advertising in sports.
The ad campaign to be spun off the Williams team by pharmaceutical titan GlaxoSmithKline amounts to a frontal assault against the enormous sponsorships of all other major F1 teams by cigarette brands.
"We want to make giving up smoking . . . more aspirational and exciting," said Mark Dickinson, Glaxo's marketing director for its NiQuitin brand.
Dickinson's next remark was a shot right in the wheelhouses of Marlboro at Ferrari, West (a German brand) at McLaren, Mild Seven (Japanese) at Renault, Lucky Strike (European-American) at BAR and Benson & Hedges (British) at Jordan: "This is a perfect opportunity to inspire millions of smokers who have been bombarded with pro-tobacco messages through Formula One for decades."
And it was rising thunder, distant but distinct, for thoroughly American Winston Cup racing.
In NASCAR, longtime financial patron R.J. Reynolds is reeling so from business downturn and U.S. lawsuits that the days of the term "Winston Cup" are numbered.
RJR wouldn't mind getting out of its NASCAR sponsorship deal as soon as possible, NASCAR officials have confirmed. Although four years remain on the current contract, RJR has asked NASCAR to seek other sponsorship -- and likely would bow out as soon as a deal was reached with some other major corporation. But hunting is sparse in the current economy.
In Indy cars, Marlboro's once-vast domain of influence in CART has dwindled to sponsorship of Roger Penske's two cars in the IRL, a league that hasn't exactly opened its arms to tobacco sponsorship. Canadian-based Player's is the only major cigarette sponsorship left in CART.
Thus ebbs the more than three-decade tide of hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of dollars into motor racing worldwide. It started when cigarette commercials were banned from TV by the Congress in 1971, and Big Tobacco looked for places to spend its enormous advertising budgets.
Controversial as it has been all along, tobacco arguably made racing what it is today. RJR essentially taught NASCAR how to market, and saved several tracks from ruin. From Viceroy in the '70s to Marlboro in the '90s, tobacco money kept many an Indy-car team competitive. F1 bathed in cigarette cash from Europe, North America and Asia.
And racers became addicted to tobacco -- not the nicotine, but the money. They got so they panicked at the thought of doing without it.
The hypocrisy of cigarette promotion has long been endemic among drivers, few of whom have been smokers for the past 25 years. It is absurd to imagine Marlboro-sponsored Michael Schumacher, one of the great fitness fanatics in sports, smoking. The late Dale Earnhardt, once asked if he'd ever smoked, frowned and said, "I don't mess with anything that's on fire."
A few years ago, non-smoking Indy racer Bobby Rahal, whose team never has been cigarette-sponsored, indicated he was entirely open to the idea. "No matter what anybody says about tobacco money, people go after it because there's so much more of it," he said.
That's no longer true. The globalized economy has evolved so that Big Pharmaceuticals has a lot more money to spend than Big Tobacco. Thus, a new trend, everywhere from Mark Martin's bar-raising $15 million a year from Pfizer (Viagra) to the NiQuitin logos newly placed on the Williams cars of Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher at Imola.
NASCAR hasn't responded to inquiries as to how the sanctioning body would view the entry of a major team sponsorship from quit-smoking pharmaceuticals. But in view of RJR's weakened position -- and the explosion of controversy sure to arise should NASCAR reject smoking cessation sponsorship -- it's hard to imagine how NASCAR could do anything other than open the door to Big Pharma and its potential anti-smoking campaigns.
ESPN to Show TRAC
ESPN, jilted by NASCAR in 2000 after raising Winston Cup to the level of public awareness it enjoys today, has a new and innovative stock-car racing league to nurture.
The Team Racing Auto Circuit, TRAC, will begin racing in May 2004, on Saturday afternoons and evenings, with its races televised by ESPN. The season, running through August, will have 13 races.
TRAC plans to begin with six teams of four cars each. Races will involve 24 cars, and victories will be determined on the combined order of finish of the entire teams, rather than individual wins. Franchises will be located geographically -- say, Charlotte (or "Carolina"), Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, etc. . . .
As if the Winston all-star race at Charlotte weren't frantic enough, this year's running on May 17 will pay $1 million to the winner of the final 20-lap segment, RJR announced Wednesday.
That's $50,000 a lap, or more than $33,000 per mile, at 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway. (Wonder if "The Nicorette," or whatever the event might be called in a few years, will pay as well.)