ATLANTA - Instead of lighting up, NASCAR will dial up in 2004.
The sanctioning body for the most successful racing series in the country announced Thursday that Nextel would replace Winston as the title sponsor for its premier level of competition.
Starting with the Daytona 500 in February, the series will be known as the Nextel Cup Series.
The 10-year deal ends a 33-year relationship between the stock car organization and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., but it will allow the sport to reach to a younger audience, NASCAR said.
"I think certainly the youth market is going to be a market that we're going to go after more aggressively," said Brian France, the executive vice president of NASCAR.
While terms of the deal weren't announced, sources said the telecommunications company will pay about $70 million a year, with roughly $40 million going directly to NASCAR's promotions and point funds and $30 million being spent on advertising.
"Nextel offers us a fresh perspective and a world of new opportunities for our drivers, teams, car owners, tracks and fans," NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. said. He also said Nextel was making a "serious and substantial commitment" to the sport.
Nextel, which two days earlier expanded its direct connect service nationally to major cities, will have exclusive rights to communications. That includes every racetrack on the 36-event schedule and the drivers and crews.
The Reston, Va., company also will be the sole communications provider at races. Cingular Wireless, which sponsors Robby Gordon's Chevrolet, and Alltel, which funds Ryan Newman's Dodge, can stay in the sport, but no other telecommunications company will be permitted to sponsor at car or buy signage at any of the speedways.
"It's unmistakable that NASCAR and Nextel have a shared passion for performance, innovation, loyalty and excellence," Nextel President Tim Donahue said. "We can't wait to begin the new chapter in NASCAR-Nextel history and to connect with everyone in the sport. This is truly a monumental day for us."
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon joined NASCAR and Nextel during the announcement Thursday at Times Square in New York.
"It solidifies a lot of credibility in the sport, so it's a grand move," Earnhardt said. "I think a lot of even the core, core fans are going to accept and be excited about this."
RJR announced in February it would give NASCAR the next five years to find a new sponsor. Under terms of the tobacco settlement, the cigarette company was restricted as to how and to whom it could promote its products, including the racing series.
NASCAR confirmed it called Nextel to start negotiations less than a month later.
"I'd like to congratulate NASCAR and Nextel on their new partnership," said Ned Leary, the president of Sports Marketing Enterprises for RJR. "We have enjoyed a 33-year relationship with an outstanding partner in NASCAR. We've been very fortunate to be part of this dynamic and unique sport."
Winston also will give up its sponsorship of the all-star race. The race for the most recent winners will be known as the NASCAR All-Star race presented by Nextel. While RJR had influence on site of the all-star event - held at Charlotte for 18 of the last 19 years - NASCAR will decide the location of future all-star races.
According to television ratings, NASCAR is second only to the National Football League in number of viewers. It also ranks No. 1 among brand loyalty, with an estimated 72 percent of its fans saying they buy products that sponsor racing.
Nextel, which recently signed a $9 million, three-year sponsorship deal with the National Hockey League, is hoping to tap into that fan base.
"The NASCAR Nextel Cup is an unprecedented opportunity to brand the most exciting championship series in sports - which lasts 10 months of the year, travels to all corners of the U.S. and captures the imagination of 75 million fans," Donahue said. "NASCAR's reach is unmatched and we're thrilled to be associated with it."
In the span of seven days, NASCAR announced it was adding a second race at the California Speedway by moving the tradition-rich Southern 500 away from its Labor Day weekend slot at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, and it had reached an agreement on a new title sponsor.
All that's left is replacing Union 76 as the official gasoline supplier. Union 76, which was one of the original partners of NASCAR, said earlier this year it was leaving.
"Tradition is part of who we are and what we do," Bill France said. "Tradition is also a guiding principle of change. We are mindful of that. It's important to our fans and it's important to us. At NASCAR we will continue to explore new opportunities."
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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