Nextel Announced As New NASCAR Sponsor

Bellerose Gunning For Thunder Road Three-Peat

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

We told you about it two weeks ago in this space. This morning, it became official.

NASCAR Chairman Bill France, Jr., announced this morning in New York’s Times Square that wireless communications provider Nextel has signed a multi-year deal to become the new title sponsor for NASCAR’s premier racing series; now known as Winston Cup. The Reston, VA, company will reportedly spend more than $80 million per year under the agreement; $30 million annually to NASCAR, with another $50 million for advertising and marketing. Nextel will reportedly be required to buy specific amounts of advertising from NASCAR's television partners; FOX, NBC and TNT.

Nextel’s sponsorship will begin at Daytona in February of next year, replacing longtime sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which has backed the series since 1972. The company already has ties with the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball

While specific details of the deal were not available at press time, it is believed that competing companies like ALLTEL, Cingular Wireless, and Sprint - which sponsor cars driven by Ryan Newman, Robby Gordon, and Kyle Petty on NASCAR’s senior circuit -- will be “grandfathered” into the sport. Other competitors will be barred from future participation in the series.

Nextel reportedly climbed to the top of NASCAR’s list only after a deal with credit card giant Visa fell through at the last moment. Sources say Visa was ready to sign-off on a 10-year, $80 million-per-year package (including advertising and marketing money), only to balk when NASCAR refused to agree to a clause that would have required fans to pay for NASCAR tickets exclusively with Visa cards.

Despite withdrawing as title sponsor for the Winston Cup Series, Winston may continue to sponsor NASCAR’s all-star race. The event, known as “The Winston,” has been held at Lowe’s Motor Speedway every year but one since its inception in 1985.

The Nextel deal is a major coup for NASCAR, for two reasons. First, the sanctioning body’s ability to land a new primary backer in such a short period of time speaks volumes about the strength and marketability of the sport in questionable economic times. Second, NASCAR replaces a controversial sponsor (cigarettes) with a widely accepted, non-controversial product (cell phones).

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Tracie Bellerose added her name to an exclusive list last week, becoming only the eighth driver to win back-to-back Late Model features at Barre’s Thunder Road. Tonight, the Gorham, New Hampshire speedster has a chance to start a new list of her own.

Only Dave Whitcomb, Phil Scott, Brian Hoar, Jim Cilley, Kip Stockwell, Gary Caron, and Lance Ferno have managed to “double-up” in Late Model Victory Lane since the division was chartered in 1992. All failed in their efforts to hit the trifecta.

While drivers tend to credit their crews when things are going well, Bellerose had extra reason to do so last week. Following a so-so qualifying effort that left her unhappy with the performance of her Merchant’s Bank/Freedom Lynx Chevrolet, Bellerose’s Jeff Laquerre-led team changed two springs and three shock absorbers, taking what she called “an educated guess” at a set-up they hoped would make them competitive in the main event. It obviously worked, as Bellerose sailed through the pack in Thunder Road’s daunting outside lane, before blowing past former track champion Pete Fecteau for a lead she never relinquished.

“I gave her everything I had,” said a well-beaten Fecteau afterward. “She’s a good racer, and that car was really strong. She beat the hell out of me.”

Should Bellerose prevail tonight, she will accomplish something very rare in local racing circles; something longtime observers believe has not been accomplished since Dave Dion put a virtual stranglehold on Victory Lane at “The Nation’s Site of Excitement” in the 1970s and early `80s.

“We had to two chances to do it,” recalled Dion this week. “The first time - in the late 1970s, I think -- everybody made a big deal out of it, and we came up short. About five or six years later, we ended up winning three in a row, and nobody even realized we had done anything until it was over.

“I’ll tell you one thing, though. Anybody that wins three straight at Thunder Road earns it.”

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After failing to qualify for Sunday’s Sirius 400 at Michigan, Morgan-McClure Motorsports owner Larry McClure said he would waste no time getting to the bottom of the situation.

“I hope I can go home and find something wrong with the car, some reason we didn't run good," said McClure Friday. "It is just a piece of metal, though. After that, it's people. I will make the decision (about) what I have to change; whether it's me, the people working on the car, or whoever is driving it."

Monday, Skinner received his walking papers. He came to Michigan 39th in the Winston Cup standings, with no top-10 finishes this season. In fact, the California native had just one top-10 finish in 50 starts for the Abingdon, Virginia-based Kodak team.

"It is necessary to perform better for our race team and for our sponsor,” said McClure in announcing the move. “We appreciate Mike’s efforts in the car, but it is time for a change. We have to finish races, and that has not been happening.”

Trans-Am series point leader Johnny Miller has been tabbed to steer the Kodak Pontiac at Infineon Raceway this weekend, but McClure may have trouble landing a quality, long-term replacement. Morgan-McClure Racing long ago fell from the ranks of Winston Cup contenders, and the team’s Abington, Virginia location also works against it, since the vast majority of NASCAR drivers and crewmen live in the Charlotte, N.C., area, and are not anxious to relocate.

Busch Series driver Bobby Hamilton Jr., reportedly declined the job this week to remain with Team Rensi Motorsports.

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Brett Bodine lost a sponsor, a racecar, and a mouthful of teeth last week. And he’s one lucky guy.

Bodine, one of the last owner/drivers left in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, learned last week that his sponsor - the Hooters Restaurant chain - was withdrawing their support following Sunday’s race at Michigan; unhappy with his failure to qualify for a number of races this season. After making the show in Friday’s Bud Pole qualifying, the New York native rode out a savage crash in Saturday practice that totally demolished his Ford Taurus and left him with a broken collarbone, broken teeth, and a nasty gash on his forehead, among other injuries.

"He blew a right-front for sure,” said Todd Bodine, who was behind his older brother when the crash occurred. “It was vicious. It was hard. I knew he was knocked out after the first hit (of two) because he wasn't slowing down. He was still running 150 miles an hour."

Bodine slammed the inside retaining wall nearly head-on, pushing the left-front tire of his Ford back through the firewall, bending the steering shaft straight up to the roof, and turning his steering wheel inside-out.

"It took him a minute or so (to regain his senses),” said Todd Bodine afterward. “I asked him a couple of times where he was at and he mumbled. The third time, he said `Michigan,’ and he knew who I was. I knew he was alright when he leaned up on the stretcher and hugged me and said he loved me.”

Brett was in such pain Sunday morning that oldest brother Geoffrey said, “I didn't think he was going to get out of his motor coach, but they gave him a shot of morphine to ease the pain. I'm going to take him home with me tonight. He probably won't get much sleep. When he was little, I used to stay up with him and change his diapers. I might have to do it again.”

Brett Bodine underwent surgery to repair his right clavicle Tuesday night at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC. A plate was inserted to stabilize the bone and allow it to heal.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

... Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon reached a divorce settlement last week that guarantees his former wife a minimum of $15.3 million. As part of the agreement, Brooke Gordon waived alimony, and will get the proceeds from the sale of two homes; including the couple's former oceanfront mansion in Highland Beach, Florida.

Both Jeff and Brooke Gordon, the latter of whom filed for divorce in March 2002 after seven years of marriage, said they are "extremely pleased" with the settlement.

…Oxford Plains Speedway Late Model driver Dennis Dee died last weekend, after his car crashed into the pit wall during a qualifying race Saturday night. Dee, who attempted to qualify for the ACT Dodge Tour’s event at Oxford in 2002, was remove from his car and transported by ambulance to Stephens Memorial Hospital in nearby Norway, Maine, then transferred to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where he died.

Dee began racing at OPS in the mid-1990s, and was a three-time feature winner in the track’s Strictly Stock division.

…Roush Racing needs a new sponsor for Jeff Burton’s #99 Winston Cup Ford, after CITGO announced that it will leave the team at the end of the 2003 campaign. Burton said he remains committed to team owner Jack Roush, who was already seeking sponsorship for two of his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series entries, driven by Jon Wood and Carl Edwards. Roush also closed the doors on his NASCAR Busch Series team last week, after sponsor OdoBan declined to extend its sponsorship of driver Stanton Barrett beyond the originally planned 15 races.

“I am committed to Jack Roush, Roush Racing and my entire No. 99 team,” said Burton. “Jack and I have had a very successful history together, and we look forward to sharing that history with a new primary sponsor. We’re convinced that the best is still in front of us, and we’re both committed to attaining our goals.”

Announcing the dismantling of driver Stanton Barrett’s OdoBan Busch team last week, a Roush spokesperson displayed the finest command of “PR-speak” we’ve seen to date, saying, “It is now up to the marketing staff at Clean Control to take its experience to generate the ancillary marketing initiatives necessary to fully activate the program through their distribution base.”

Got that? Goooood.

…Thunder Road returns to action tonight with “Green Mountain Office Machines Night,” featuring the return of the “Run-What-U-Brung” amateur competition, and the annual kids’ poster contest. The green flag flies at 7 p.m.

Tomorrow night, the NASCAR Busch North Series contests the “Carquest 150” at Stafford Motor Speedway in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. On the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway dirt track, it’s “Dennis Preston Builders Night,” with a full card of weekly events, plus a Twin State Modified Series race, and the return of the sprint cars. Post time is 7 p.m.

The ACT New England Dodge Tour travels to Waterford (CT) Speedbowl Saturday night for a 100-lap event, while at Plattsburgh, New York’s Airborne International Raceway, the U.S. Army presents the double points mid-season championship, with a driver’s autograph session at intermission. Post time is 6:30 p.m. At New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, it’s the Third Annual “Isaacson Steel Employees Night,” with double features for the Tiger Sportsmen, plus Late Models, Strictly Stocks, Dwarf Cars, an 8-cylinder Enduro, and Spectator Drags.

Also Saturday, TC’s Outdoor Sports presents a full card of racing on the Bear Ridge Speedway dirt, with all their weekly divisions, plus a Twin State Modified event and the Sprint Cars. Saturday night is “Racing Against Cancer Night” at White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, with all five regular divisions in action, plus the Kids’ Truck Division, and the Star Antique Racers. The green flag waves at 6 p.m. Miller Auto Group presents a full card of racing on the Canaan Fair (NH) Speedway asphalt oval, with six divisions taking the green flag at 6:00 p.m., along with a special appearance by the Legend cars. The NEKC karts are in action at Barre’s Thunder Road Saturday, with the M’s R.V./Jockey Hollow Pizza trophy dash, post-time 4 p.m.

Sunday night, Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven holds its annual “Summer Sendoff,” with all weekly divisions in action, along with an enduro.