NASCAR lifted its ban on hard-liquor ads on cars Wednesday, easing restrictions aimed at cleaning up the image of a sport that traces its roots to good ol' boys running moonshine through the hills of Georgia and the Carolinas.
''We felt the time was right,'' NASCAR president Mike Helton said. ''Attitudes have changed, and spirits companies have a long record of responsible advertising.''
NASCAR already allowed beer and malt liquor sponsorships. Budweiser sponsors Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car, for example, and Busch sponsors a lower-tier racing series.
But NASCAR restricted what liquor companies could do since the sport's modern era began in 1972, most recently denying a bid from Roush Racing in June to put a liquor company on the car that Jeff Burton drove. International Speedway Corp., a sister company also controlled by NASCAR's founding France family, has agreements with Crown Royal, however.
Diageo, a British liquor company that was already an associate sponsor for Matt Kenseth with its Smirnoff ICE malt beverage, immediately announced Wednesday that its Crown Royal distilled whiskey will be the sponsor on another Roush car next season.
''Our association with this world-class racing team will allow us to connect with millions of adult consumers, who are devoted NASCAR fans, and remind them about the importance of responsible drinking,'' Diageo spokesman Mark Waller said. ''A multimillion dollar marketing budget supporting this sponsorship will include dedicated social responsibility messaging.''
Enjoying tremendous growth in mainstream popularity lately, the racing league landed a $2.8 billion television contract with NBC and Fox that began in 2001, and this season switched the sponsorship of its top division from cigarette-maker R.J. Reynold's Winston brand to telecommunications giant Nextel.
As part of the scrubbing-up process, Helton told drivers in February to watch their language on radio and television, and Earnhardt Jr. was fined and lost points for uttering a vulgarity in a postrace interview on TV.
Helton said any liquor companies entering NASCAR must follow advertising guidelines set by the sanctioning body.
''Any spirits company involved in NASCAR will have marketing campaigns strongly grounded in responsibility and will follow advertising and marketing guidelines set by NASCAR that are consistent with the Distilled Spirits Council's advertising code,'' Helton said.
NASCAR's review before deciding to lift the ban included outreach to advocacy groups such as the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and industry groups such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
John Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, said he is impressed with the way NASCAR has approached the change of policy.
''They appear to be trying to do it right,'' Moulden said. ''When we talked with NASCAR, I stressed to them how important NASCAR is to young males, who make up the majority of drunk drivers. They told us that any advertising done in NASCAR by breweries or distillers, they'll make sure it is directed at the legal age audience and not to kids and that they will require 20 percent of advertising dollars go toward promoting responsible drinking.
''We'd like to see that same type of responsibility by all sports and advertisers.''
Helton said internal discussions about allowing distilled spirits companies into the sport have been going on for at least 12 years, but the topic kept coming up this season.
''I can't point to a specific issue that made us change our opinion as much as the topic just recurring to the point where we said, 'Look, what's wrong with this? Why should we not do this?'' Helton said.
''I think the feedback that we get is that the core fan of NASCAR, which we feel like represents Americana as much as any sport does, is OK with spirits whether they are here or not as sponsors,'' he said. ''And we also feel like the American public in general understands and accepts the fact that that's part of everyday life.''
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