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Winston washed out in sea of yellow and black

2/12/2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The yellow and black Hummers seem to be everywhere. Driven by people in yellow and black T-shirts shirts, wearing yellow and black hats while passing out yellow and black bar glasses.

They drive under yellow and black billboards, past yellow and black garbage cans and in front of the massive beachfront hotel, which is draped in a yellow and black tarp.

It's yellow and black overload. But what else would you expect? Cell phone giant Nextel has coughed up $750 million, the most expensive sponsorship in sports history, to be the presenting sponsor for NASCAR's premier auto racing series for the next decade. Now they have to make it pay off.

It won't be easy. For 33 years, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was NASCAR's primary presenting sponsor. The term "Winston Cup" was to auto racing what "NFL" was to professional football, what "PGA Tour" was to golf.

Enter the yellow and black Nextel brigade. They're the ones given the challenge of erasing 33 years of Winston Cup brand recognition. They're the ones who want fans thinking cell phones, not cigarettes, when it comes to NASCAR.

"I'll be honest -- a few years ago, I thought the Winston Cup was like the Stanley Cup," said Michael Robichaud, Nextel's senior director of sports and entertainment marketing and the company's point man for the transition. "I thought Winston Cup was the name of the trophy. It was just unprecedented brand recognition."

To change that, Nextel spent the last six months leaning on sports marketers at Octagon for opinions and suggestions. They put together a team of former drivers, owners and track workers as well as other NASCAR sponsors and even Winston employees for input. They sat down with each and every driver, asking them what worked with Winston, what didn't work; what would they do if they were Nextel, what changes would they like to make. They did the same with track owners, with team owners. And of course, a series of NASCAR VPs.

The answer, at least here in Daytona, was to paint the town yellow and black, get people thinking about Nextel, but not be overly invasive.

"We basically wanted to decide how we could make a statement," Robichaud said. "The critical component though, was to show how much of a fan we are, how excited we are, with respect and admiration for Winston. We didn't want to force this on everybody. It will happen over time."

Still, the signs of change are everywhere. On billboards along I-95 and I-4, the main interstates that lead to Daytona. All along International Speedway Boulevard, the main road that drives past the speedway and goes all the way to the beach. Some of the yellow signs with black letters read: "New Cup. New Color. Same Race." Others read, "From rrring to vrrroom."

There are advertisements on television. The radio. In the newspapers. For the first time in the sport's history, smoking won't be allowed in the press box. The infield and access roads around the speedway are littered with yellow and black NEXTEL trashcans.

And then there are the street teams. Five groups of typically attractive people, bumping their way in shiny Hummers throughout Daytona Beach, handing out more than 100,000 bar glasses, t-shirts, hats and stickers carrying the Nextel logo.

"What better way to get on everybody's good side than driving around town and giving out a bunch of free stuff," said Michael Lang, a 28-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan from Orlando. "Everybody likes free stuff."

Outside the speedway, the glitzy "Nextel Experience" is the most elaborate display in the NASCAR corporate village. It offers fans an air-conditioned environment to drive NASCAR simulators against other fans, compete in trivia games and take photos with the speedway in the background.

Inside the track, two Nextel-sponsored Jumbotrons, measuring 80 feet by 80 feet, broadcast track feeds. Even the famed red Winston truck, the place the NASCAR bigwigs would levy punishments when drivers weren't behaving, is now covered in yellow and black.

"It's different and it's going to be different," driver Terry Labonte said. "But change isn't always a bad thing."

Relying on the core of its business, Nextel has also made a $25 million commitment to improve cell phone reception at NASCAR races, most of which are held in remote locations. They will bring NASCOW (NASCAR cellular on wheels), a 53-foot cell phone transporter from track to track along all season. That truck will accompany a handful of smaller, 28-foot SUPERCOW trailers that will be sporadically placed throughout racetrack grounds for the same purpose.

So far, the fans are taking notice.

"This is the next millennium," said Lori Wenig, a 43-year old lifelong NASCAR fan from Charlotte who made the drive to Daytona with her husband Bill. "I'd rather have good cell phone reception than free cigarettes. It's just going to take some time to stop saying Winston."

Already, several drivers have slipped up in interviews. To make sure he doesn't mess up, NASCAR pit reporter Bill Weber has written the word "Nextel" on his hotel room mirror. And taped onto the television monitor of any reporter broadcasting the race this year will be the same one-word reminder of who's paying the bills.

NBC has gone as far as to start a kitty, with any staff member coughing up $10 for every mistake. The proceeds will eventually be given to charity.

"If anything, it's been fun for us," Robichaud said. "When they mess up, we probably get more attention from that being pointed out than we would if they didn't."

So what exactly is at stake here? Why is this so important to Nextel? A 2001 NASCAR marketing study found that among its fans, 40 percent are three times more likely to purchase a sponsor's product or services than those of a non-sponsor. According to Joyce Julius and Associates, Winston received an equivalent of $164 million in television exposure last year. And that was in an environment in which Winston was legally unable to advertise on television or use drivers to promote cigarette smoking.

Considering NEXTEL has a subscriber base of 12.3 million, roughly eight percent of the market, and they can advertise on television, there's plenty of room to grow -- especially amongst NASCAR's estimated 75 million fans.

Already, Nextel has announced the release of 10 driver-branded phones, preloaded with driver-specific wallpapers and ring tones. During the Super Bowl, it unveiled a commercial featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr., in which the driver daydreamed about taking his No. 8 Chevrolet onto the field and scoring a touchdown in an NFL game. A sideline coach used a Nextel phone to call Earnhardt to the field.

It was the first time a NASCAR presenting sponsor was allowed to advertise on television.

"Nextel's commitment encompasses the largest continuous TV advertising presence of any NASCAR sponsor in our sports history," said George Pyne, NASCAR's chief operating officer. "This will help to continue attract new fans in all corners of the country."

Later this season, Nextel will continue its use of TV advertising, unveiling a series of historical flashback commercials tying NASCAR's history to Nextel's future.

But the heart of the transition will be those yellow and black all-terrain outreach programs. The plan is to unleash the five Hummers all across the country, stopping at races, at bars, at other sporting events. Going everywhere to spread the word that Nextel is in town.

Yellow and black, baby.

"We want it to be about the racing as much as it's about us," Robichaud said. "We want fans to come out to the race, realize it's the same great action they've always loved -- just with a little tweak."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.