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No smoking in Victory Lane

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2001

Until now, it was easy to choose sides any time anybody in sports battled Big Tobacco.

But a smoldering dispute at this weekend's Indianapolis 500 has clouded the issue, making it harder to tell the good guys from the bad.

On Thursday, just three days before the race, Roger Penske's Indy team pulled all the Marlboro logos off its cars and uniforms. The move came a week after the National Association of Attorneys General reminded Philip Morris, Marlboro's parent company, about the advertising restrictions set out in the 1998 settlement that followed lawsuits against U.S. tobacco companies.

''I'm just here to race,'' Helio Castroneves, one of Penske's two drivers, said in the team's garage Thursday in Gasoline Alley.

Then Castroneves motioned toward the blank spot on his race car, where the familiar Marlboro logo used to be.

''Maybe they should put our names there. Helio and Gil,'' he said, including teammate Gil de Ferran.

If that's all it took to craft a fair solution, the story would end right there. But Penske's cars were hardly the only ones at the speedway sending out mixed messages.

Come Sunday, one liquor company's logo will be prominent on Al Unser Jr.'s car. A second brewery is sponsoring Buddy Lazier's. The two cars of racing legend and current team owner A.J. Foyt will be shilling for a casino. And the rock band Aerosmith -- whose world view might be best summed up by their hit record, ''Jaded'' -- will be hawking their latest album on Jeff Ward's ride.

As questionable as it seems to allow ads linking driving with drinking, gambling and rock 'n' roll (which hasn't yet been proven a health hazard), people will point out that those businesses aren't restricted from advertising the way cigarette manufacturers are.

To prove how confused and hypocritical the whole thing has become, consider that Brazil's best-selling cigarette company, Hollywood, will be allowed to keep its logo on the race car of Felipe Giaffone -- because it was not part of the U.S. tobacco settlement.

Keep in mind, too, that if the Indy 500 was being sanctioned by the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit instead of the rival Indy Racing League, Penske's team would have been allowed to display its Marlboro logos as well.

And that was the excuse Penske used for not complying earlier with the settlement. He contended the exemption that allows Marlboro to advertise on the CART circuit should apply to this IRL event, too.

''CART specifically sanctioned us running this race,'' he said. ''They made a change to accommodate a team like us. To me, this is an international event, like the Masters, which is open to everyone.''

Don't feel sorry for Penske. Or Philip Morris.

A spokesman said the company, which has sponsored Penske for 11 years, would pay him the same that it would for any race. Even though the company wouldn't enjoy the usual benefits associated with having its logo on Penske's cars, the gesture is not quite as noble as it seems. If nothing else, the publicity from this little brouhaha will almost certainly cover the shortfall.

Unfortunately, one other controversy over the use of symbols at the speedway won't be resolved quite that easily.

Some two weeks ago, the animal-rights advocacy group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, complained to speedway officials about the long-standing tradition of having the winning driver sip from a jug of milk in Victory Lane. PETA wants the speedway to serve either soy milk or orange juice.

Fat chance of that happening, despite spokesman Fred Nation's comments that speedway officials needed more time to ''digest'' the proposal. One of the track's Race Day sponsors is the American Dairy Association, which offers a $5,000 award to the race winner and a $500 award to the winning chief mechanic.

Speedway officials would rather drink paint than turn away a decades-long sponsor. So count on the winner drinking milk -- and then maybe lighting up afterward. That's one way to sneak a Marlboro into Victory Lane.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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