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Death defying speed, white-knuckle thrills…and smoke that kills. From Formula 1 and the World of Outlaws SKOAL Sprint Car Series to Camel Motocross and Red Man monster truck rallies, Speed Kills chronicles the partnership between tobacco and motorsports–and the tobacco industry’s circumvention of the TV cigarette ad ban.

In 1971, the year cigarette commercials were banned from TV, cigarette and smokeless tobacco brand logos began appearing in televised auto races on the cars, drivers’ uniforms, billboards, and safety walls all around the tracks. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company had just become the title sponsor of the most widely watched US car race series, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which was renamed NASCAR Winston Cup Racing.

Official Lotus F1 Team 99T 1987 Show Car – Ayrton Senna Livery

Official McLaren F1 Team 2021 – Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo Livery

Nearly thirty-five years after the iconic Camel livery debuted on Ayrton Senna’s Lotus F1 car, and nearly 60 years after the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health linked cigarette smoking to increase rates of cancer and illness, R.J. Reynolds still uses F1 to advertise its products. In 2021 at the Monaco Grand Prix McLaren partnered with its original sponsor Gulf to re-create an orange and white-clad F1 car, and plastered over the garish color combination was RJR’s Vuse e-cigarette branding. Proving that tobacco still has deep roots in racing and motorsports.

I subscribed to National Dragster for at least a decade because the sport was called NHRA Winston Drag Racing. It was an oversized magazine on newsprint, published 48 times a year and weighing in at 150 pages an issue. It still looks thriving, but published 24 times a year in print and online and with issues of around 120 pages.

NHRA Winston Drag racing ran 20 week-end races a year, all televised on either ABC, TNN, or espn. Pomona, California, the oldest track, hosted the opening race in February and the closing race (the championships) in October. two races had Winston as the title sponsor–the Winston Select in Rockingham, North Carolina, and the Winston Select Finals in Pomona. I regularly attended the event in Baytown, Texas. One racing team was sponsored by RJ Reynolds: “Smokin’ Joe’s Funny Car.” Thus at Pomona and Rockingham, you could watch the RJ Reynolds Smokin’ Joe car compete in an RJ Reynolds’ cigarette brand-named race in a sport with RJ Reynolds as the cigarette brand name title sponsor.  This would be the equivalent of the Marlboro Yankees playing in the Marlboro World Series of Marlboro Major League Baseball.

When I wrote my article on motorsports in the New York State Journal of Medicine, I likened it to a bloodsport, cited it as having a death rate comparable to marines in the Viet Nam War, and called for a ban on televised races because of the end-run around. As a result, the story got picked up over the wire services, and I was invited to go on CNN to debate Humpy Wheeler, president, and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. The host was a great sports reporter (CNN used to do sports news until ESPN emerged) named Nick Charles.  I took the commuter train from Manhasset, Long Island to Penn Station, across the street from which was CNN. Humpy Wheeler was a no-show, so it was a good story for my side. Somehow I was also invited to write a guest commentary for National Speedsport News (NSN), the only newspaper (a weekly) that covered all motorsports. I was sitting next to a guy on a plane that week and saw that he was reading NSN. I mentioned that I was interested in motorsports, too (I didn’t say why at first) and asked him which articles he was reading. He started talking about some crazy doctor that was trying to get races off TV. I casually told him that was me. We wound up having a great discussion.

NO RACES TODAY! … if the politicans get their way. 

Notice from the American Coalition for Entertainment & Sports Sponsorship decrying attempts by lawmakers to curb cigarette advertising in motorsports in National Dragster, March 17, 1995.

I also received a nice letter from a fellow named Robert Post commending me on the NYSJM article (Automobile Racing: Slaughter on Tobacco Road). Turns out he was a historian at the Smithsonian Museum of American History who was writing a history of drag racing. He told me I nailed it. Drag racing had been a local pastime for generations in countless small towns–not just dangerous street racing but organized in each locale. It kept generations out of trouble, channeling their energies into automotive skills. When RJ Reynolds became the title sponsor of the NHRA, he told me, the company also took over events at local venues, effectively taking over a grassroots activity…and driving the local venues into the ground.

By the time the issue of National Dragster from March 17, 1995, appeared, ending tobacco industry sponsorship of sports was being raised by Congressman Henry Waxman who headed the health subcommittee. His chief staff person on tobacco issues for the committee was Ripley Forbes, who was a very nice guy and went on to work in the area of tobacco-free sports. Hence the launching of a p.r. counter-offensive and the formation of an “American Coalition for Entertainment & Sports Sponsorship” (or ACCESS). This was as nutty as gun rights arguments. If the government bans tobacco sponsorship of sports, you won’t have any sports. Where have we heard that before? I love the line, “Grass-roots petition to preserve the tradition.” You bet your boots that ACCESS was run by RJ Reynolds.

Note the two cigarette ads in this issue–for Smoking Joe’s Racing (Camel cigarettes), and Winston Select–two of the handful of color ads and the only non-automotive-related color ads. then there is the article on Darrell Gwynn, paralyzed from the chest down in a drag racing accident a few years before, married to a woman who was an osteopath student.

This issue is far and away the item in the collection that most summarizes NHRA Winston Drag Racing.

Alan Blum, MD
Director, Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society
Former Avid Drag Racing Fan

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