- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

Nextel Communications knew it had bigger problems than simply paying the bill when it agreed to the most expensive sponsorship pact in sports history, a 10-year, $700million contract for the naming rights to NASCAR’s championship series.

There was the not-so-small matter of replacing Winston and what is widely regarded as the most successful and pervasive sports sponsorship ever. No matter how quickly the 1,300 Winston signs dotted around NASCAR tracks were changed to Nextel or how many TV ads Nextel ran, the phrase “Winston Cup” was uttered on air more than 1,200 times during nationally televised races in 2003 alone. And the count goes well into the millions when all of the print and radio mentions during the entire 33-year run of the sponsorship are added.

“My whole goal for the entire [Daytona] week is to say [Nextel] and not the W-word,” said Allen Bestwick, NBC racing announcer. “Anytime you make a big change in something that’s been so synonymous with racing and in everyone’s subconscious, you’re bound to slip up a little.”

But with tomorrow’s Daytona 500 heralding the start of the 2004 racing season, officials for both Reston-based Nextel and NASCAR say strong inroads have been made in changing the identity of the championship series. Everywhere that racing fans now see NASCAR, the impossible-to-miss black and gold emblem of Nextel is not far away.

“They’ve definitely caught on,” said Andrew Feit, NASCAR director of alliance marketing. “The teams have embraced Nextel. The drivers have accepted Nextel. The fans have accepted Nextel. It’s given us all an opportunity to push forward. But what really made the difference is they were very respectful of Winston, allowed them to have their final day in the sun, and they never took the approach that just because they wrote a big check they own us.”

Winston withdrew its long and heralded title sponsorship of NASCAR after government restrictions on tobacco marketing and financial pressures within the industry made the cost unjustifiable.

In the six months after a high-profile news conference last June in New York’s Times Square to announce the NASCAR deal, Nextel kept a rather low profile. Activity was furious, however, as Nextel executives crisscrossed the country meeting with drivers and team owners, plotting initial marketing plans and immersing themselves in the sport as much as possible.

The result of the intensive research and relationship-building is a broad array of marketing initiatives. A series of TV ads featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip has made its debut, many with the tagline, “New Cup. New Colors. Same Race.” Earlier this week, Nextel started selling NASCAR-branded cell phones bearing the colors and numbers of 10 drivers. And at each NASCAR race this season, the company is opening up “The Nextel Experience,” a fan exhibit similar in concept to NBA’s Jam Session or baseball’s Fan Fest, featuring interactive displays, racing demonstrations, memorabilia and ride simulators.

“The basic idea is to not just throw our stuff up there and make it all look like a trade show exhibit,” said Michael Robichaud, senior director of sports and entertainment marketing for Nextel. “We are big fans of NASCAR and the fans that come to the races and watch them spend a considerable amount of time connecting themselves with racing. We want to be a part of that.”

Perhaps most ironic among Nextel’s many moves will be the presence of mobile “cellular on wheels” towers, which quickly have been dubbed “NASCOWs.” The extra gear was necessary when Nextel discovered more than four out of every five wireless phone calls at NASCAR tracks do not connect, the result of most tracks being located in remote, rural areas unable to handle calls from crowds numbering 100,000 or more. Such a percentage is suicide for anyone using NASCAR to sell wireless phone service.

But even with such hurdles, Nextel is benefiting from selling a kid-friendly product that’s used by every driver, unlike Winston.

“So many of the younger drivers, such as [23-year-old] Kasey Kahne, tell us they don’t remember life without wireless phones,” Robichaud said. “I think that tells us how far we’ve come and how far the sport has come in terms of technology.”

Even with Nextel’s massive investment, the company will be taking a soft-sell approach at the tracks toward pushing its products. There will, of course, be plenty of opportunities to try out Nextel phones, and a fan is certainly welcome to sign a contract for wireless service. But the company knows even NASCAR’s well-documented base of fans with plenty of disposable income won’t throw money away.

“This not an impulse purchase, nor is it a quick sell,” Robichaud said. “We know this is much more an opportunity for us get out there, connect with the fans and have them try our product. The presentation is different than with other types of merchandise.”

Most sports industry analysts expect Nextel to need a minimum of two years to get itself ingrained into NASCAR’s still-insular culture. But Wall Street already is on board with the company’s prospects, boosting Nextel stock by 60 percent since the NASCAR deal was signed. And with Nextel controlling 8 percent of the wireless market, most observers see plenty of upside remaining for the company.

“They’ve grown up a lot in the last few years, as have we,” Feit said. “Now the big question is what the future holds for both of us together.”

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