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NASCAR dances with new devil

In 2004 NASCAR will change its major sponsor, ending 30-years of the Winston Cup series. In an attempt to shake off a bad image, NASCAR has , in turn, picked another potentially harmful sponsor: Nextel.

You do not have to be a big NASCAR fan to know that the most coveted award at the end of the season is the Winston Cup. Winston is not a man or a woman that had a great influence over the sport; Winston is the brand of cigarettes that has sponsored NASCAR since 1972.

Now, in the ever-so-protective and conservative nation we live in, R. J. Reynolds, producer of Winston cigarettes, is pulling its sponsorship from the racing world, and NASCAR cannot wait to see them leave. With the restrictions on advertising, RJR does not see NASCAR as a good investment any longer, and NASCAR does not see RJR as good publicity.

NASCAR has already picked mobile phone behemoth Nextel as its new sponsor. But why has NASCAR picked a product that people are trying to keep out of cars?

We all know that cancer caused by cigarette smoking claims hundreds of thousands of lives per year, but using mobile phones while driving currently causes 2,600 deaths a year, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis– along with 330,000 injuries and 1.5 million instances of property damage. And to top it all off, mobile phones may possibly also be a cause of cancer.

Admittedly, cigarettes claim more lives per year, but you don’t see someone running through a stop sign because they were smoking a cigarette. Maybe a better decision for NASCAR would be getting the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to sponsor them; that would be a surefire way to promote safe driving.

All joking aside, this is not a good decision for NASCAR. They have merely changed their association with one bad habit to another. This time, the difference is that mobile phones and cars are too frequently a lethal combination. Which sponsor is worse is a complete toss-up. Which would you rather promote? Cigarette smoking that kills you in your 60’s, or driving your car 180 mph while talking on your mobile phone?

Along with the risks comes the warning; I can see it now: “This race brought to you by Nextel; remember to practice safe driving — keep your mobile phones off.” As if some overweight announcer from Arkansas, let alone NASCAR, is going to stop people from using their mobile phones while driving.

It is bad business for NASCAR, it’s fans and it’s drivers. Who, on that track, wants to raise the Nextel Cup above their heads at the end of the season? It would be like changing the name of the Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup.

There is nothing better about sports than tradition. Tradition turns a sport into a saga; it turns individual accomplishments into legend. NASCAR cannot afford to replace its tradition every time it replaces its sponsor.