The Frontstretch: McLaughlin Thinks Out Loud : The Empire Strikes Back As NASCAR Fights AT & T by Matt McLaughlin -- Tuesday June 19, 2007

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If history teaches nothing else, it teaches us NASCAR management hates losing battles. And lately, NASCAR has been losing some high profile battles that have caused it to lose some serious face.

Just this year, the citizens of Staten Island and Washington State caused NASCAR's sister company, the ISC, to eliminate proposed new tracks in those areas when the public let it be known loud and clear they didn't want their tax money being spent to build a racing facility. In fact, if it was all the same with the France family, they sent a message loud and clear that they’d prefer not to have a track in their area at all.

Not too long before that, Texas Motor Speedway and SMI, oh, excuse me, Ferdinand Ferko, took NASCAR and Bill France hisself to task, claiming Bruton Smith was never awarded the race date he was promised for building his palace of speed outside of Fort Worth. Smith purchased half of the North Wilkesboro facility to sack one date for his track, and he claimed he was owed another one as a result of promises never fulfilled. Of course, Bill France disagreed…strongly. But as the case wound towards court, opening a case which threatened to open up NASCAR and the ISC's accounting books (likely written on opposite sides of the same sheet of paper) France backed down. As a result, Texas got their second date, at the expense of an ISC track, no less, one that NASCAR no longer pays an official visit. The less said about the rape of Rockingham… the better.

Now, Kentucky Speedway is headed towards a court date next March with NASCAR. They aren't demanding just a race date. They want the France family to divest themselves of either NASCAR or the ISC to eliminate an apparent conflict of interest in how the sport is run and how race dates are awarded.

This April, even a mere driver took the organization to task. Tony Stewart alleged on his radio program NASCAR was throwing unnecessary caution flags to orchestrate, rather than officiate, races. Old Tony got drug behind the woodshed and paddled as a result, a reminder from the powers that be that the reason he is popular is because of NASCAR; NASCAR isn't popular because of him. (A rather odd contention. I don't see as many Tony Stewart T-shirts as I do Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirts, but I see way more folks wearing No. 20 livery than sporting tributes to Brian France in their wardrobes). Anyway, that’s besides the point of what has now become the biggest lawsuit to affect the sport to date, a case that continues to generate news even after an initial decision was made.

Recently, NASCAR lost a battle against an entity as big or bigger than itself. AT&T fought for the right to rebrand the 31 car from Cingular to AT&T logos, a move NASCAR resisted due to agreements signed with sponsor Nextel. A judge ignored NASCAR’s requests, however, and awarded AT&T the right to do what it pleased. Ironically, the No. 31 car first appeared at that All-Star Challenge sponsored by that other cell phone company, seemingly intent on maximizing traffic tragedies caused by inattentive morons chatting on their cell phones when they should be watching where they're going. Well, that's a fight NASCAR decided they could not and would not lose. They filed a countersuit made public over the weekend asking for "at least" one hundred million dollars in damages.

Excuse me? Is that $100,000,000 dollars? Do cell phone companies even make a hundred million dollars a year? If so, I guess that's why I am suddenly afraid to ride my motorcycle on the street lest I get run over by moron yuppie scum mom in her Lexus SUV calling to check in our her spoiled child's progress in competitive Gymbroree?

It's unclear whether NASCAR has the only dog in this fight for the bad guys. A representative of Nextel declined to comment on whether they were a party to the lawsuit or even supported it after an inquiry made for this article. (That's documented fact, so please spare me the threats of retribution, you cellular bullies). And what is the basis of NASCAR's assumptive request for such a huge punitive reward? Well, taken from the text of the suit which is in the public domain, “Cingular's refusal to follow NASCAR rules and accept NASCAR's denial of this paint scheme, and the filing of this lawsuit, has undermined NASCAR's authority as the sanctioning body of stock car auto racing.”

Umm, guys. Maybe you're showing a little ego here. Stock car auto racing is not the sole possession of NASCAR. Other oval track stock car racing series, albeit much smaller than NASCAR, also conduct stock car races coast to coast on a weekly basis. Perhaps what the suit should have read is that “AT&T has undermined NASCAR's authority as the sanctioning body of NASCAR racing.” The suit goes on to ask that NASCAR be given the right to throw out and exclude any other company in the wireless communication game from their events. Of course, this includes Alltel, the sponsor of Ryan Newman's No. 12 team which was grandfathered into the sport under the same grandfather clause that NASCAR now says that AT&T violated.

NASCAR says they need the right to exclude who they want because the current title sponsor's involvement benefits everyone. Drivers and teams earn points and championship money through the largesse of the N phone company. Fans benefit from their involvement as well. Well, on behalf of one plain old country, longtime stock car racing fan, NASCAR has my permission to stop fighting on my account. Quite personally, if any presidential candidate were to include a plank in their platform saying that if any right-minded individual who had their ability to do their job, take a trip on publicly funded roadways, or enjoy a movie at the theater became infringed upon by an idiot using a Nextel walkie-squwackie, that same right-minded individual had the right to crown the offender upside the head with a ball-bat, they'd have my vote and half my net worth as a campaign contribution.

As usual, NASCAR officials aren't thinking through the longterm implications of their actions. Down the road, perhaps the cell phone companies have to cut back on marketing to pay huge lawsuits from former users who did indeed die of brain tumors caused by wireless devices and a new title sponsor has to be found. If Coors Light were to step up to the plate to be title sponsor of the "Coors Light Cup" would Budweiser and Miller then be tossed from gangplank after years of high visibility, high dollar support of race teams to the benefit of the teams and the fans? NASCAR seems to have as many "official fill in the blank of NASCAR" sponsorships as the beach has grains of sand. If emboldened by their success in a lawsuit against AT&T by a friendly judge, could the Daytona Beach mafia take a few minutes off of their drunken high speed commutes home to exclude other existing or potential sponsors? It’s very possible; for starters, they sure don't seem real happy with the folks at Pennzoil who sponsor the No. 29 car but have Shell logos included in the paint scheme. (Like cell phone companies, I can't generate much sympathy for any oil companies while I pay $3.15 a gallon for gas.)

The whole lawsuit comes down to this: NASCAR has always said the drivers and teams are private contractors. That's why there's no pension fund for drivers, NASCAR paid health insurance, etc. But those same drivers and teams are dipping into a rapidly dwindling pond of potential sponsors looking for money to run their organizations as NASCAR is sucking up official sponsors. Hey, it's a free market economy. Let NASCAR grab the sponsorship they can, and let the teams and drivers grab what they can, but don't let either dictate who the other can deal with.

AT&T must not be too worried. Inquiries for comment for this article to their "contact us" link on their site went unanswered. And the day after NASCAR announced their bombastic lawsuit that even pushed the lost 54 million dollar dry cleaners pants off the front pages, AT&T went ahead and renewed a lengthy contract extension with RCR and Jeff Burton. After all, AT&T knows something about being an all-conquering monopoly that can do no wrong. If they didn't, we'd all still be communicating by smoke signals and pony express. But finally, the feds decided the salad days were over and there had to be competition for sake of consumer choice; that same messy process gave birth to cell phone companies.

Personally, I've got no problem with the humbled and down-sized land line company that is AT&T. I still use their long distance service because it works. I hope AT&T logos remain on Jeff Burton's car. I like Jeff Burton. He's a good guy. But I hope the N people pack it up and go home. I don't like Brian France. He's not a good guy.

Hey, maybe NASCAR decided to make a run at AT&T for one hundred million dollars because they know the Kentucky track's suit is going to cost them more than that when it's decided against them. NASCAR doesn't like to lose battles. But it used to always win because it knew when to pick its fights. Now, it might not just be the battle they lose, it might be the war. And I can give you about one hundred million reasons why.

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Joe
06/20/2007 12:48 AM
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so let me ask this..say Sprint..i mean Nextel..i mean SprintNextel wins this silly thing and kicks out AT&T and Alltel…does Sunoco sit over here and the little light bulb goes on and they say AH HA! and kick out Shell and Marathon? what about the new sponsor for Cup Lite do they take a second look and say hey theyre lawsuit happy and thats alot of bad press..well pass on sponsoring this thing

JOY MARIE
06/20/2007 06:11 AM
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I have a hard time figuring out..if the teams are independent contractors..then wouldn’t the contracts they have with their sponsors be independent of NA$CAR also? Also..I hate to be the bearer of bad news..but I don’t know that many people who buy their cell phone, gasoline, beer, etc. solely on their favorite driver. Albeit..there are some..but I think the majority of the thinking NA$CAR fans buy what works for them..not what is pushed in their faces…Also..if NA$CAR/NEXTEL had just kept their mouths shut and let the ATT thing just kind of happen..who would have really noticed..yeah..for a race or two..but after that it would have been a non issue..I would be intested in how many people actually went out and changed from NEXTEL to ATT solely on the #31 car’s name change…

Douglas
06/20/2007 07:09 AM
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Your article is one GREAT piece of work!

NASCAR is all about the MONEY! NOT! the racing!

NASCAR forgets that sponsors buy the cars, and support the teams to compete in NASCAR!

Now it’s (NASCAR) saying: we don’t want you sponsors! To the tune of $100M! Lets go to court!

I have to believe that current sponsors, and future potential sponsors will be looking closely at this, afraid that someday their company will be bought out (or otherwise changed) negating any “investment” they may have had, or would have, in a NASCAR TEAM!

YOUCH!

Gilles Porelle
06/20/2007 07:13 AM
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I think NASCAR is loosing all sense of reality here. If NASCAR wins and AT&T is removed where does that leave Jeff Burton. 18 million dollar sponsors don’t come out of nowhere. And if they do succeed at getting AT&T out what next? In five years we’ll be running 43 white cars with a small NEXTEL decal on the side. In my opinion, had they just let the car be switched to AT&T in February and not fought this. It would have resulted in a lot less bad publicity for Nascar and Nextel. Let’s be honest, the car’s been AT&T branded for over a month. As the world stopped turning? If a judge listened to both sides and decided that AT&T could be on the car, well that should be the end of it. Even if Nascar does win and tosses out AT&T, it will be short term gain and long term pain for NASCAR. I for one am starting to get fed up with the whole organization. On a related note, Stewart was taken behind the woodshed, but since that day, there are a lot fewer “bogus” debris cautions. Coincidence???

mindcrime
06/20/2007 07:15 AM
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One question. Were you as outraged when Marlboro could not sponsor a car during the Winston years? Every time I read an article about this I can’t figure out why no one was as upset about the exclusivity RJ Reynolds had for 20+ years. They couldn’t even sell Phillip Morris products at the track but I never heard anyone complain. Why is that?

Scott
06/20/2007 07:38 AM
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NASCAR is becoming more about the money nowadays. Have you ever since the entire list of all of the “Official” whatever “Of NASCAR.” There are probably 50 -60 different companies and products represented. I have to wonder if they win this if NASCAR will then go after any competitors of these sponsors. Will they go after Dodge-sponsored cars because Ford is the “Official Truck of NASCAR.”

Also, I agree with others that Nextel should have just let A T & T make the change without any complaints. They would have changed with hardly any notice at all. Just look at all of the free advertising that Nextel gave A T & T over the past few months.

Travis Rassat
06/20/2007 07:58 AM
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There are a lot of good points being made here (everybody who’s commented so far has had great points as well). I really don’t have much to add, other than count me in as another fan who is concerned about the precedent that could be set here.

Gilles – I’ve thought the same thing about Tony Stewart and the bogus cautions. I still agree with what Tony said on his show, and I am really mad at NASCAR for taking him behind the woodshed. It just fueled my contempt for NASCAR (the sanctioning body that evidently doesn’t care about racing, only money) even more. Tony’s a true racer, and he’s more in touch with what the fans love about racing than NASCAR is.

mindcrime – that’s a great point. I think it’s indicative of how our society has changed – for better or for worse. Even though I am not a smoker, nor do I advocate smoking, part of me thinks that somebody should have challenged it back then and Marlboro should have been allowed to run a car, assuming the advertising laws of the time aren’t what prevented it from happening, and the only reason Winston continued as the series sponsor is because of a grandfather clause.

Scott – you’ve nailed it: this has done nothing but give AT&T free publicity when nobody would’ve really cared otherwise.

MATT
06/20/2007 08:04 AM
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As far as the difference between Marlboro and Winston, Marlboro (and the other tobackky companies) weren’t sponsoring cars when Winston stepped in. Marlboro was investing in open wheel racing here and overseas at a time USAC was bigger than NASCAR. AT&T/Cingular and Altel were already aboard cars when Nextel came crashing the party like a bull in a china shop.

mindcrime
06/20/2007 08:41 AM
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Matt,
Well, at least Cingular was. I guess my only point is, how do you attract a company to pay 100 million a year if you can’t grant it some exclusivity? I’m sure there are some but I would think it would make it that much harder to attract a series sponsor.

Frank Smith
06/20/2007 09:42 AM
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Excellent article. I think you and the responders to your article have about covered it all. NA$CAR just cannot conceive of the idea that they are not the GOD of stock car racing. One final thought. Since NA$CAR wants the power to kick out all competing wireless companies, perhaps Alltel should consider joining AT&T in this fight. I think it would bring BOTH companies some FAVORABLE pubicity. I, and I am sure many others, would not use nextel now if they gave it to me FREE. And I also agree, I canot stand that little idiot, Brian France. He needs a good spanking.

Bob
06/20/2007 11:21 AM
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Some interesting points by most parties. Another thought to existing and potential sponsers, with a little bit of Yankee (not NY just America in general) history, we do not like to be told or pushed into what we buy, rather give us choices. And from there we make a decision. So the lesson here for the sponsors is the backlash for forcing your product on us could go the other way. We want you to compete for our loyalty, just like our racers have to do. Then you will win us over.

4x4s
06/20/2007 11:56 AM
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The inconsitency that bother me most about this is how the actual brand exposure for a car sponsorship pales in comparison to the commercial exposure by the same brand on NASCAR’s TV coverage of the event.

I mean, even before AT&T got their injunction, when the 31 was still wearing Cingular logos, the FOX TV coverage of the races was plastered with “Cingular is the new AT&T” logos. We saw the “AT&T crewchief question of the week”, etc., etc.

So, if NASCAR allows FOX/TNT/ESPN/ABC to have AT&T paid sponsorship, then why not allow a racecar to as well? Especially when the car is not shown nearly as often on TV as the commercial spots, unless it’s running in the top 5.

The only folks who would not be exposed to the AT&T branding, should NASCAR win in this case, would be those who go to the race live, instead of watching it on TV.

Jim
06/20/2007 12:39 PM
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If Bill France, Jr. (may he rest in peace) were still running the show, this wouldn’t even be an issue. At the first hint of “trouble,” he and RC would have had a little meeting and it would have been solved.

Maybe Bowling for Soup needs to do a NASCAR version of their hit “1985” because we can’t judge what’s going on today by a 22 year old paradigm.

NASCAR has decided to chase after the big money and with it comes all the same headaches that these big players deal with all the time.

Being involved with NASCAR is like renting an apartment instead of buying a house – you have no equity. The landlord (NASCAR) has all the equity.

Thing is that without corporate sponsors and TV money, NASCAR would die a quick death. But don’t kid yourselves, the people writing the big checks year after year are getting plenty in return or they’d be gone in a heart beat.

Of course, I agree with that if NASCAR had said nothing it would have been a nothing burger. Kind of like when a new Hooter’s opens up and the silly protesters get them on the front page for free.

MMARSHALL
06/20/2007 12:42 PM
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I have always had Cingular/AT&T cellular service. When Nextel became NASCAR’s primary sponsor, I considered switching at the time…......but….....I didn’t because everyone I know that uses Nextel always complain about loss of signal…etc. I use my service because it WORKS, not because of NASCAR.

J. Meyer
06/20/2007 03:29 PM
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Hey mindcrime, you said…
“They couldn’t even sell Phillip Morris products at the track but I never heard anyone complain. Why is that?”
As a smoker of Marlboro for 30 yrs, I’ll tell you why…Because Winston gave out TONS AND TONS of free Winston cigs at every race!
While Winstons were, IMO, a bit more raspy that Marlboro reds, it was not uncommon to come home from a race with a carton or 3 of FREE Winstons! I always came back with more than I went with and lets face it, Free is good!

Gilles Porelle
06/20/2007 07:10 PM
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I think Brian France should be charged with actions detrimental to the sport and fined 100 million dollars and docked 100 owner points for the farce he’s making out of NASCAR. Daddy would be proud…may he rest in peace

Bobb
06/21/2007 06:30 AM
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Nice article Matt! I want to add a couple sidebar comments.

NASCAR has become a corporate business. Looking back at the days when Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts hustled stock cars around tracks and comparing the same activities by Jimmy Johnson and Junior Earnhardt, there is little in common than a 4 wheeled vehicle.

NASCAR is less about racing than business and the trend continues toward the dollar and away from competition. Decades ago, NASCAR was about who could drive while today, the competition is to get the money to spend on incredibly expensive programs. There is less connection between the skills of each driver nowadays than there was 40 years back.

Bill France Jr. just passed away. I’d like to add my personal opinion. Bill France Jr. was great for NASCAR! Bill France Jr was terrible for racing.

Sincerely,
Bobb
Inalabama@excite.com

Steve R.
06/21/2007 09:40 AM
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Great column Matt. As usual you are one of the few motorsports writers not afraid to speak the truth about NASCAR and what they are really all about.

True competition ceased to matter a long time ago, now NASCAR is nothing more than an entertainment-based money making enterprise. Just look at the the lack of parity right now. NASCAR made sure they slowed down the Fords a few years back. Now that Chevy has won twelve of fifteen races this season, where are cries for parity? You won’t hear them because NASCAR and Chevy are thick as thieves. I don’t favor one car make over another, I follow the drivers, so this is just an unbiased observation — Anyone who doesn’t think NASCAR favors the bowtie is not paying attention.

I agree with Travis R about Tony Stewart and the spot-on comments he made on his radio show about the fake cautions. I think he dealt a real blow to NASCAR’s credibility. Who else noticed that the whole DEI/Junior story couldn’t have come along at a better time for NASCAR? The NASCAR brass must have been heaving a huge sigh of relief to have attention diverted away from Tony’s comments and onto one of the biggest stories the sport has ever seen.

Hopefully fans won’t forget, not that they didn’t suspect NASCAR manipulated the races even before Tony spoke out. I wanted to see NASCAR squirm, for one reason. It was my hope that it would bring about some needed changes. But I’m afraid more drivers are going to have to get on Tony’s soap box for that to happen.

Mike
06/21/2007 11:55 AM
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mindcrime – AT&T was an associate sponsor on Matt Kenseth’s car – but, they were nixed by NASCAR as a full time sponsor for Roush because they weren’t a full time sponsor before Nextel. Don’t think they’re not enjoying tweaking the beach boys with this for that snub!

NASCAR has always had ‘exclusivity’ deals with their high level sponsors like Winston and Unocal (back in the day). Petroleum companies couldn’t run fuel sponsorships – they all had to use lubricants on their cars – because of the Unocal deal. I’m sure Sunoco has the same deal. I recall one driver at Talladega being denied his sponsorship from Texaco Auto Diesel because it was a fuel…

J. Meyer
06/21/2007 04:46 PM
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Hey Mike,
Please explain this picture to me. Note the tiny little Unocal sticker. Not sure who drove the car, I am still researching that, but it was back when Unocal was the ‘exclusive’ fuel supplier. Scroll down to about the bottom of the page for the image of the Sunoco car!
“linktext“http://www.frontstretch.com/board/index.php/topic,1051.0.html

J. Meyer
06/21/2007 05:30 PM
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Follow up…
I believe the picture at
http://www.frontstretch.com/board/index.php/topic,1051.0.html

is Sterling Marlin’s 1989 Daytona 500 car.
Sunoco Ultra was his sponsor for that race with just ‘Sunoco’ listed as the sponsor for the rest of 89 and 90.
So don’t tell me Unocal had exclusitivity. And then this year Sunoco goes and cries about Harvicks Shell car!
I will NEVER buy Sunoco gas. I’ll walk to the next station thank you very much.

Mike
06/22/2007 11:35 AM
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I didn’t see the pic you were linking to – but, I’ll go out on a limb and say it was the car Sterling Marlin/Terry Labonte drove. Great paint scheme, IMO.

Sunoco Ultra was the product range branding they used back then, not just for their 93 octane fuel as now. The fact they got to use the #93 to some benefit was cute. But, their oils carried the Ultra name as well. Notice no mention of any specific product on the car. The consumer can infer which product on their own… If fuel comes to mind first, then great!

(In fact, I think Texaco started using the Havoline name for its fuels around this time too. Maybe Sunoco was on to something)

The contingency stickers pay the car owner if they run the sticker. If Sunoco was directly advertising their fuels, I would imagine that they would have paid Billy Hagan for the lost revenue.

BTW – I don’t condone the exclusivity thing, I’m just saying that its been that way a long time. No different than Marlboro in open wheel racing.