NASCAR attempts to settle sponsor conflict
Monday, January 29, 2007
WELCOME, N.C. -- A sponsorship dispute is pitting one of NASCAR's most respected team owners against one of its biggest revenue sources, leaving officials hustling to work out a compromise two weeks before the start of the season.
Richard Childress' No. 31 car, which is driven by Jeff Burton, is sponsored by cell phone service provider Cingular. But that company has been bought by AT&T, which is phasing out the Cingular brand name.
Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't be a problem. The team would just slap a few shiny new logos on the car and hit the track.
But when it comes to selling cell phones to race fans, it's not that easy.
When Nextel signed a 10-year, $700 million deal to become the title sponsor of NASCAR's top series before the 2004 season, it lobbied NASCAR to ban rival telecommunications companies from becoming sponsors. An exemption was granted for existing telecom sponsors such as Cingular and Alltel, which were allowed to remain in the series.
But with Cingular changing its name, Nextel officials say Richard Childress Racing isn't allowed to put AT&T logos on its car.
"If the name changes, then that changes the game," said Dean Kessel, Sprint Nextel's director of NASCAR Nextel Cup series marketing. "Cingular and Alltel were grandfathered in and everybody knew the rules of engagement early on."
But even if the name changes, isn't it still the same company? Nextel, after all, has merged with Sprint since signing on as NASCAR's sponsor. The series name remains the Nextel Cup, at least for now.
"We are still working closely with the folks at RCR," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president of racing operations. "We are in the process of working with them. They understand the rules that we have in our partnership with Nextel. We are positive we will be able to come to an amicable relationship with those guys and look forward to 2007."
When NASCAR struck its deal with Nextel, team owners complained the telecommunications sponsorship ban was far too restrictive. O'Donnell said NASCAR is sensitive to owners' needs.
"At the end of the day, we need team sponsors," O'Donnell said. "The team realizes that and NASCAR realizes that."
Childress, a longtime friend of NASCAR's ruling France family and former car owner for the late Dale Earnhardt, isn't one to air his dirty laundry in public. But he doesn't want to be left scrambling to find a new sponsor on short notice, either.
"All that's being handled right now with NASCAR," Childress said. "I can't really comment on it. It's just [up to] NASCAR right now. Nextel's a great series sponsor, and we can work this thing out."