Citing fans' shifting mores and the pressure to find new sponsorship dollars, NASCAR officials will allow the makers of hard liquor to advertise on racecars for the first time in the sport's 55-year history.
That means starting with the 2005 season-opening Daytona 500, stock-car racing fans will be able to cheer on the Jack Daniel's Chevy as it mixes it up with the M&M's Ford Taurus or root on the Crown Royal Ford as it trades paint with the Cheerios Dodge.
The policy shift, which was announced yesterday, was hailed as a victory by race-team owners, who bankroll their operations with money from corporate sponsors. As the economy cooled in recent years, many owners struggled to find sponsors willing to pony up the $14 million to $17 million a year to splash their name and logo on the hood of a NASCAR car. In lifting the prohibition on hard liquor sponsorship, NASCAR officials are adding another category of goods and services that car owners can turn to for backing, in addition to the traditional complement of beer, motor oil and gasoline.
"It's a big win," said Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing, which fields five teams in NASCAR's Nextel Cup series. "It's a very significant category in marketing today, and there are at least a half-dozen companies with brands that are large enough to engage in a full, primary sponsorship. To have this come in is going to be a nice boost for a lot of teams."
But the decision was sharply criticized by George A. Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"What this deal is all about is getting liquor advertising onto network television," Hacker said. "What it provides is non-stop rolling, roaring billboards that will be seen by millions of young and impressionable people -- including underage persons. On top of that, rather than disassociating drinking and driving, it reinforces the relationship between liquor and cars."
NASCAR President Mike Helton acknowledged that the move would have its critics but said NASCAR officials concluded, after studying the issue, that the positives outweighed the negatives. Among his argument for lifting the ban:
* The distilled-spirits industry had proven to be responsible in its marketing, Helton said in a conference call, citing its emphasis on responsible drinking. He added that all NASCAR ads would carry a "responsible-behavior message."
* Opening the doors to the makers of hard liquor would help race teams by adding new sponsorship opportunities, he said.
* And NACAR fans, along with other Americans, increasingly view alcohol as part of everyday life and no longer draw a stark distinction between beer and distilled spirits, he added.
"If this is something that can benefit the sport by economics for car owners and help them be competitive and also benefit the sport by creating a major national message of being responsible, then the good outweighs the bad," Helton said.
NASCAR's policy shift is the latest in a flurry of overhauls to stock-car racing -- each of them geared toward expanding its fan base, TV ratings and credibility as a major-league sport. The past 12 months have seen longtime series sponsor R.J. Reynolds replaced by Nextel Communications; small-market tracks abandoned for big-city markets; and the traditional method of crowning an annual champion supplanted by a points system designed to ensure drama down the stretch.
But in lifting the ban on hard liquor, NASCAR appears to be taking a step backward in its efforts to distance itself from its moonshine-laced past and cast itself as a mainstream, family-oriented sport.
"I think that's certainly a concern, and it has been for several years, of ours," Helton said when asked about the sport's lingering negative stereotypes. "Ultimately though, this decision included a good deal of thought about the overall impact."
Car owner Richard Childress is reportedly close to signing a sponsorship deal with Jack Daniel's for one of his NASCAR teams. Diageo, the world's leading maker of distilled spirits, announced yesterday that its Crown Royal brand will sponsor a Roush Ford next season. Its Smirnoff Ice brand, which isn't classified as a hard liquor, has been an associate sponsor of Matt Kenseth, who drives the No. 17 Roush Racing Ford, the last two years.
Among those taking a pass, however, is veteran driver Morgan Shepherd, 62, a born-again Christian who has been seeking a sponsor for more than a year. In lieu of a corporate logo, Shepherd displays the image of a cross on his race car's hood, along with the phrase, "Racing with Jesus."
"There won't be alcohol sponsorships on my car, no matter what," Shepherd said in a statement. "That doesn't mean I look down on those who do have those type sponsorships. It just means I feel I can't accept their money and market their products and still do the things I need to do as a spokesman for Jesus Christ. I've seen the destruction that alcohol can bring to lives, and it does not -- and will not -- work for Morgan Shepherd."