#20 - Winston to the Rescue
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
NASCAR stock car racing was facing a major crisis going into 1971. Chrysler had announced they would only back two cars, and Ford had quit the sport altogether. For a decade, Ford and Chrysler had sponsored either outright or covertly, all the major teams on the circuit, and with the endless well of factory cash suddenly gone, the future of the sport was at stake. Some big name car owners had already announced they would not run in 1971 unless they received financial assistance from a sponsor or sizable appearance money from the track promoters. Junior Johnson had said outright, his cars were for sale and he was getting out of the sport. Cale Yarborough had already begun looking for a ride in the Indy car series... and into the void stepped RJ Reynolds, and their Winston brand of cigarettes.
RJR had originally approached Junior Johnson about sponsoring a car, but when he heard of the type of exposure they were after, he sent the company representatives to speak to Bill France. Recall, shortly before that time the congress had passed a law banning cigarette advertising on television, RJR was looking for a way to continue promoting their product and had a large budget. France and the RJR executives hammered out a deal. Winston would become the title sponsor of the spring race at Talladega. (Which has been the Winston 500 all these years, but that title will move to the fall race next year as part of the "No Bull 5 Million Dollar" program.) More importantly, Winston would make a major contribution towards the point fund. There would be a $25,000 prize split between the top ten teams in points after the World 600 in May, another $25,000 split among the top ten teams in points after the Southern 500 in September and $50,000 divided among the top ten in points at season's end. In terms of the prize money available these days, $100,000 might sound laughably small, but in those days it was big money and big news. In a forward looking program that would benefit track owners, RJR also made a major commitment to buy billboard and newspaper advertising promoting upcoming events. In those days NASCAR races were rarely a sellout, and that advertising would help sell a lot of tickets. But there was one catch. The smaller races on the schedule were not part of Winston's plan. They felt those venues were too small for them to expect a decent return on their advertising dollar. Any race of 250 miles or less would still pay points towards the cash prizes, but would not officially be part of the Winston Cup. At that point it became obvious that the days of NASCAR's premiere division running on those short tracks were numbered. Recall also, at that point 14 of the scheduled 48 events on the NASCAR trail were of less than 250 miles, at such tracks as Hickory, Ona West Virginia, Malta New York, South Boston Virginia, and Columbia South Carolina, all of which had been part of the NASCAR schedule for years. Still the moneys that Winston poured into the sport helped ease stock car racing through that difficult transition period. In an attempt to make racing cheaper for the smaller teams, NASCAR also began experimenting with restrictor plates, trying to hobble the dominant Chrysler Hemi and Ford Boss motors, so the cheaper Chrysler wedges and Ford 427 could compete on an even playing field.
There were even bigger changes afoot for 1972. For one thing, Bill France Senior, who had tightly held onto the reins since NASCAR began, announced he was stepping down in favor of his son, Bill Junior. For another, realizing that Winston's support was crucial to the sport's survival and growth, the 1972 schedule had been trimmed of all those races of less than 250 miles, to a mere 31 races. Thus began what is termed "The modern era of stock car racing." While the move was understandable, naturally it was not popular with the owners of those tracks and the fans of those areas that had supported NASCAR all those years. As a sop, France announced new Grand National East (Granddaddy of today's Busch series) and Grand National West (Granddaddy of the Winston West series) series that would run on the shorter tracks. In an attempt to save the foundering Grand American series, which ran the "pony" cars (Mustangs, Firebirds, Camaros et al) and to ensure decent field sizes at the events, the Grand American cars would be legal in both Grand National East and West races.
In addition, NASCAR would pay $2000 appearance money to the four top teams in the sport for any event 400 miles or longer that they entered. The four teams selected all ran different brands of cars to keep up fan interest and included the Junior Johnson/Richard Howard team that fielded Chevy's, Bud Moore's Ford team, Norm Krauskopf's famous K and K Insurance Dodges, and of course Richard Petty's Plymouths. At races less than 400 miles, the track owner was required to pay $1500 to any of those four teams that entered. Charlie Glotzbach had been slated to driver Junior's Chevy, but Bobby Allison had a financial commitment of $80,000 from Coca-Cola that year so he wound up in Johnson's Chevys. Again, $80,000 may seem an incredibly low amount... it takes approximately 100 times that amount to sponsor a front-running team today... but in 1972 that was a fortune. Richard Petty had lost Chrysler's support as well, when they finally abandoned NASCAR all together, and he too followed that trend toward having a big name corporation sponsor his car, signing up with STP, the same company that sponsors his cars to this day. Allison and Petty, with the first major corporate backing of the modern era, would go on to dominate the sport.
France also made another decision that year, both out of deference to Winston, and in realization that with major corporations sponsoring race cars, television was going to play a major role in giving those companies the exposure they desired. Hard liquor and cigarette companies were banned from advertising on television and to calm skittish network types, France let it be known the booze and smoke folks would be limited to a 32 square inch decal on stock cars if they chose to sponsor an entry. 32 square inches is about the size of a bumper sticker. While television concerns played a role in that decision, so did a conflict in IndyCar racing, which was also sponsored by a cigarette company that withdrew their support after a rival company sponsored a front running team. France was not about to allow anything that might offend Winston and endanger their support of NASCAR to take place on his tracks. In another similar decision, he also announced UNOCAL 76 was the official gas of NASCAR and quietly let it be known he would not welcome any other gasoline company sponsoring a car, even if they would agree to sponsor a car that had to run on a competitor’s fuel. That arrangement remains in effect to this day. (Yes Texaco, Citgo and others have sponsored cars, but if you look carefully it's always under the guise of some other product they sell, such as Texaco's Havoline brand motor oil.)
There was also a major revamping of the points system in 1972, in an attempt to get as many teams as possible to run the full schedule, not just the big dollar high profile events. In 1971, only Richard Petty made a concentrated effort to win the championship, and independent driver Frank Warren was the only driver to attempt to make all 48 races. Under the new system, teams would score points for every lap they ran at any track. Points awarded per lap ranged from .25 points per lap at tracks of less than a mile to 1.25 points per lap at 2.5 miles and longer. (Coincidentally I'm sure, the only two such tracks were Daytona and Talladega, both of which the France family owned.) Any team that wanted to have a real chance at the Winston bonus and the championship would have to compete in every race.
And thus the seeds were sown for the modern day "Winston Cup" era, and NASCAR once again managed to navigate some turbulent waters and not only survive but prosper.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.