ATLANTA The way the NASCAR Winston Cup Series does business started making significant changes long before the first lap of the season-opening Daytona 500.
The announcement that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was withdrawing its support of the premier racing division after 33 years was the first of several major changes that will affect the way the sport does business in the future.
By the time Bobby Labonte took the checkered flag last Sunday to end the season several things had changed. NASCAR had a new boss, the sport had several new rules and gasoline supplier, the oldest and most-sacred racing dates were changed, NASCAR moved closer to a court date that threatens its control and Homestead-Miami Speedway created the new standard for other tracks to follow.
The 2003 campaign will be remembered as a season of transition.
It started two weeks before the Daytona 500 when Winston said it was removing its name from the title sponsorship. The cigarette company said it was changing its focus, but it soon admitted the landscape had changed so much it had no choice but to leave.
Tobacco companies became more restricted in their marketing and advertising programs as the result of lawsuits by several states representing smokers. At the same time, NASCAR moved its priorities toward a younger crowd. Once considered a bastion for country music legends, the Winston Cup Series suddenly became a hotbed for modern bands and music videos.
The tobacco settlements strongly prohibit companies from targeting a younger crowd and that's exactly where NASCAR wanted to go.
Nextel Communications agreed to become the title sponsor at midseason. The deal was for $700 million over 10 years.
While NASCAR was negotiating the Nextel deal it was also looking for a new gasoline supplier. Unocal 76, which had been involved with NASCAR for 55 years, decided it was time to leave the sport as well. Starting next year, the new supplier will be Sunoco.
While the addition of Nextel and Sunoco were major changes, the biggest came in September when Bill France Jr., the son of NASCAR founder Bill France, said he was turning his post as chairman over to his son, Brian.
Brian France is schooled in issues like marketing and licensing, not racing.
Less than a week into his new role, the sport made significant changes to its rulebook. NASCAR decided it wasn't safe to race back to the flag during a caution period, so the new rule freezes the running order the moment the caution flag is displayed.
In addition to freezing the lineup, NASCAR decided the first car one lap down would automatically be placed back on the lead lap as a tradeoff for not allowing anyone to race back to the flag.
The first race the rule was used, Ryan Newman was placed back on the lead lap and he went on to win the race at Dover, Del.
A month later, NASCAR announced it was making changes for the 2004 season to make the cars more competitive. After admitting the cars were too dependent on aerodynamics to allow side-by-side racing and passing, the sanctioning body said it would remove an inch-and-a-half from the rear spoiler and mandate other changes to the front and rear-bumper areas.
The most-controversial change came when International Speedway Corp. said it was moving its Labor Day racing weekend date from Darlington (S.C.) Raceway to California Speedway. Also, North Carolina Speedway would lose its October date to Darlington.
Darlington had been home of the Southern 500 since 1950 and its history is every bit as rich as golf's Masters.
As NASCAR moves quickly into new directions, a pair of race fans from Texas hope a court breaks up the racing organization.
The men, both shareholders of Speedway Motorsports Inc., claim the Texas Motor Speedway was promised a second racing date from NASCAR. The suit also claims ISC and NASCAR operate as the same since they both are owned and controlled by the France family.
The suit points out the last three speedways to join the NASCAR schedule California Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway are all owned by ISC. The suit involves nearly 100 lawyers, including Johnny Cochran, and is scheduled for court in 2004.
Finally, change was never more apparent and appreciated than at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The track ripped up the six-degree banking layout and replaced with a computer-generated variable-degree banking of 18-20 degrees.
Drivers loved the change and rewarded fans with two- and three-wide passing last weekend.
''The place had more than one (racing) groove,'' said Labonte, who closed out the year by winning the Ford 400. ''It will only get better.''
Will the rest of the sport follow?
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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