Nascar shifts gears on booze

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Image-conscious Nascar is strongly considering changing its policy to allow hard-liquor brands to sponsor teams in its top tier Nextel Cup Series.

The move could alleviate sponsorship problems for some drivers but might put the brakes on Nascar's drive to be more family friendly.

"We're looking at it and studying it," a Nascar executive said. "There are a lot of things to consider."

Nascar confirmed the review, but declined to comment further until a decision is reached.

Accepting hard-liquor brands would be a complete reversal of Nascar's position, which it re-emphasized just three months ago. When Diageo's Crown Royal brand signed on as the title sponsor for the IROC (International Race of Champions) series in January, Nascar reiterated its ban on sponsorships from hard liquor and chewing tobacco.

Hard-liquor companies can, and have, used their malt beverage products as sponsors, but not their spirits. Diageo's Smirnoff Ice, for instance, is one of the sponsors of driver Matt Kenseth, last year's Nascar champion. And spirits makers would love to be involved with Nascar. Executives close to the racing league said Diageo, Brown Forman Corp.'s Jack Daniels and Fortune Brands' Jim Beam, among others, had previously contacted Nascar about sponsorships of racing teams. The hard-liquor companies have long tried to close the gap on beer makers when it comes to marketing and advertising.

Diageo did not return calls, but Rob Warren, VP-marketing for North American Whiskey at Diageo, told Advertising Age in January: "Motor sports is a particular interest for our consumer. And motor sports is second only to the NFL for viewership."

The racing league has retooled its image in recent years, capped by the 10-year, $700 million title sponsorship from Nextel after Nascar and 30-year partner R.J. Reynolds parted ways after last season. The result has been a huge payoff, as Nascar has become the No. 2 sport in the country in both popularity and TV ratings behind the National Football League. Moreover, Nascar has drawn a flood of family-friendly sponsors that include Procter & Gamble Co.'s Tide, General Mills' Betty Crocker and Cheerios, Lowe's, Home Depot, Target, the U.S. Army and Georgia-Pacific's Brawny.

criticism

Hope Taft, co-chair of Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free and First Lady of Ohio, was dismayed to hear Nascar could lift its hard liquor ban. "Nascar is extremely popular with youth between the ages of 12 and 18, as the decision makers of Nascar well know," Ms. Taft said. "It is irresponsible and unethical to promote alcohol in venues that are popular with children."

But what Nascar must weigh is its image vs. the needs of its drivers. Many teams are suffering without long-term sponsors. Several have failed to gain season-long sponsorships, in part because of the economy and in part due to the change in the scoring system in which only the top 10 drivers will compete in the final 10 races for the championship, presumably creating a situation where drivers who aren't eligible for the title won't see as much TV coverage (AA, Feb.2).

That has created problems that have spilled over to the track. Nascar likes to have a full complement of 43 drivers who can at least start each race, and it has allowed second-tier drivers in races. Following a race at Darlington, S.C., earlier this year, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon criticized the arrangement after he suffered a brutal crash.

"Is allowing sponsorships from hard-liquor companies the answer? I don't know," said one team owner who asked not to be identified. "On one hand, yes, you do have the family-friendly image to think of. But why be hypocritical when there are already beer sponsors? It's going to be a tough choice. For some of these teams, I just hope they make it soon."

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