Monday, January 18, 2010

“What If?” Part III: What if we still called it the Winston Cup?

For 30 years, NASCAR’s elite division was the Winston Cup Series because if its title sponsor, Winston cigarettes. In those 30 years, NASCAR grew from a hick southern sport to a national monstrosity with a national TV deal, whose drivers were household names.

In 1973, Winston was a perfect fit for NASCAR. It was a sport spawned in the south, where every other person had some ancestor who made money as a tobacco farmer. Really, it was the marketing gurus in the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company who helped expand NASCAR outside of the Confederate states.

However, in 2003, hit with an onslaught of lawsuits and anti-tobacco legislation, RJR came to the realization they could no longer continue as NASCAR’s title sponsor, and the three-decade relationship that created the Winston Cup Series had to come to an end.

In 2004, NEXTEL bought the naming rights, and ushered in a new era in NASCAR – the NEXTEL Cup Series. When Sprint merged with NEXTEL, the series was renamed the Sprint Cup Series.

Today, in 2010, the Sprint Cup Series is vastly different than the old Winston Cup. The TV has a different presence, the championship structure is different, the track has a different atmosphere.

But, let’s travel back to 2003 and play like Winston never left. How would NASCAR be different? Would we still have the Chase?

One of the biggest differences would be NASCAR’s flashiness, or lack thereof. Sprint/NEXTEL made NASCAR more flashy. The Sprint Yellow wall at the All-Star Race, the fireworks, huge driver intro stage would not exist. Post-Winston, NASCAR became a spectacle it never was with Winston.

In 2003, the race track was draped in Winston Red. In 2004, fans and competitors came in to a sea of NEXTEL Yellow – much more NEXTEL Yellow than there ever was of Winston Red.

The famed “monster car” of the TV commercials would be non-existent (heck, Winston was barred by law from even running commercials).

The Sprint Fan Zone at the track had a rough equivalent with Winston, but visitors had to be 18 and present a pack of cigarettes to get in, only to get Winstons in return. Today, families and kids hoard in to enjoy Sprint’s one-of-a-kind fan experience.

Arguably one of the biggest questions surrounding the matter, however, is the Chase. Would the Chase still be around if Winston had never left?


The Chase, a 10-race play-off of sorts, was NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s project. He was looking for a way to add excitement late in the season to try and compete with the NFL in TV ratings.

Whether or not Winston left at the end of 2003, the Chase was destined to come. The arrival of NEXTEL presented a perfect opportunity to introduce the Chase.

NEXTEL/Sprint helped make NASCAR more family-friendly. When I was in fifth grade, I went to school on Halloween dressed as a flagman (yes, I really did). Imagine the ire of my teacher when I walked into elementary school splashed with Winston logos. I’m lucky they didn’t have the heart to make me change clothes.

NASCAR and company couldn’t put the Winston Cup logo on any children’s clothing. Die-cast cars made for kids, instead of the Winston Cup contingency decal, simply said NASCAR Racing Series.

In video games, on the walls of the tracks, where the Winston Cup logo normally donned, was NASCAR Racing Series (though still in Winston Red).

Without NEXTEL/Sprint, things would still be this way.

NEXTEL/Sprint helped make NASCAR more flashy and family-friendly. It helped propel NASCAR into the 21st century in a way that Winston never could. Overall, the change in title sponsor was a good one.

Other NASCAR Notes

I just have write a bit of commentary about the upcoming switch back to a rear spoiler instead of the current wing.

I do hope this will improve competition – it’s a boost NASCAR needs, but I’m not sure it will.

One of the biggest advantages of the wing is the side plates on either end that provide the cars with tremendous side force. When a car got sideways, the side force would catch it and help the driver straighten out. This helped drivers push the cars harder.

On top of that, NASCAR announced they would make the change, and begin wind-tunnel testing it shortly. This means they decided to make the change before they did any testing. I’m not so sure that’s a smart idea.

However, Michael Waltrip’s suggestion that this spoiler be made of transparent lexan for vision purposes instead of metal is a good idea NASCAR would do well to heed. Various stock-car series, including the ASA series and many Whelen All-American series tracks already do this.

I’m not sure whether a spoiler instead of a wing will improve the racing. I am sure the drivers will end up missing the side force.

-David Dubczak

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