The Speedway Says Goodbye to an Old Friend
The relationship between Winston and Lowe¿s Motor Speedway has been a good one since the beginning.
When Richard Howard was the track¿s general manager, he came to me about a sponsorship proposal he and Junior Johnson were going to make to R.J. Reynolds because new federal regulations, which were to take effect in 1971, were going to ban tobacco advertising on radio and television.
At that time, it was a proposal to sponsor three race cars¿a Winston car, a Salem car and a Camel car. I drew the cars and colored them with the colors of those cigarette packs. This was when I had my own advertising/public relations agency. RJR turned down the idea of sponsoring the cars, but obviously decided to develop a program with NASCAR and its speedways.
Ralph Seagraves was the original person at Winston who I dealt with when I joined the speedway in 1975. He was an extraordinary human being with more street smarts than anybody I had ever met. Originally from Wilkes County, Ralph got his master¿s degree in dealing with people by serving as RJR¿s ¿man in Washington¿ for 20 years.
One of Ralph¿s jobs was to put Winston, Camel and Salem cigarettes in the White House and also on Air Force One. As a matter of fact, Ralph told me he was in President John F. Kennedy¿s Oval Office placing cigarettes when JFK was assassinated in 1963. The White House was locked down and he could not leave for some time. I worked very closely with Ralph until his death. We did many things together and every once in a while I would get on the wrong side of him.
The first time was because of the red-and-white paint Winston distributed to help give a little color to the speedways, many of which were quite run down at the time. Everything was to be painted red and white and I didn¿t like it. So when I got the paint, I took the red down to the paint store and traded it for brown. We ended up with a creamy tan and we painted everything that color to mute the place. Ralph got upset and I asked him what difference it made since we were putting Winston on the walls and wherever else he wanted it. He eventually calmed down and accepted the fact that here at our track the paint was going to be cream colored while the rest of the tracks continued to use red and white.
A spat between Ralph and I also occurred when we allowed U.S. Tobacco to post prize money for the then World 600. It made Ralph so mad that RJR ceased dealing with the speedway through the 600. It was the only time we did not have representatives from RJR at that race. Junior Johnson, a close friend of Ralph¿s and myself, decided to become the peacemaker later that summer. He invited my wife Pat and I to spend the day at his cabin near the Blue Ridge Parkway. T. Wayne Robertson, Ralph and their wives also came, as well as Junior¿s wife, Flossie. The girls left to go sightseeing with Junior while Ralph, Wayne and I were left in the cabin. We decided to go out on the porch and resolve our differences. We¿ve had a great relationship with RJR ever since.
Ralph had a great way with people. He could walk into some old town in Manchuria and make friends instantly. He could also be quite firm and put up with no nonsense from his employees, particularly with the various Miss Winstons. I was at a sports writers¿ conference with Ralph once and watched him chew out a Miss Winston for being in a motel room with one of his employees, even though the door was wide open. He said that was a no-no and she got the message, even though what was going on was perfectly harmless. He had very high standards about how the company would be represented.
Ralph was not only street smart, but he knew everybody, everywhere. If he did not know them, it wouldn¿t take him long to change that. He would pick up the phone and call anybody. He treated the drivers, crew chiefs and car owners with great respect and dignity and they all grew to love Ralph. Ralph brought along a young show car driver, T. Wayne Robertson, who he had hired. Ralph groomed Wayne to take over when he retired. If anybody ever had big shoes to step into, Wayne did.
Eventually Wayne filled Ralph¿s shoes, which nobody believed would happen. Wayne was quite involved with The Winston. He considered that race to be RJR¿s event and we would argue all the time about how to do it. He was the type of guy you could argue with, but not get too mad at. If you did get angry, it wouldn¿t last long because he would pat you on the back and say you might be right, but¿
In 1991, RJR decided it might move The Winston out of Charlotte, so I took Jim Duncan and Ed Clark from my staff up to Winston-Salem to meet with Wayne and his crew. They wanted a proposal and wanted to know what we would do differently if we got The Winston back. I had several ideas, but they were too lame for Wayne. I could see we were getting nowhere and were about to lose this deal, so I simply said, ¿How about we move this race to Saturday night.¿
Jim Duncan and Ed Clark looked at me like I had just dropped out of a C130. Wayne also had a puzzled look on his face and facetiously asked why we would run a race when no one could see it. He then said he would rather run a submarine race. I laughed and said, ¿You know where I am coming from Wayne, we are going to light the speedway.¿ I had no idea, anyway, shape or form, how we were going to do it when I said that.
He thought the idea was great and to make a long story short, we got The Winston back. But, when we got in the car and headed back to Charlotte, Jim Duncan and Ed Clark looked at me like I was crazy. Eventually we figured it out with the help of MUSCO Lighting and the rest is history. However, we had to sign an agreement that if the lights did not work, The Winston would be run on Saturday afternoon. Obviously, we did not have to do that.
The thing that made RJR so effective was not only the leadership of the people who ran the motorsports program, but the attitude of the very top management. All of the company presidents got into racing which made dealing with them much easier. They really wrote the book on corporate sports marketing and plowed the field for everybody else. Before RJR, racing sponsorships were basically automotive oriented, led by Firestone, Goodyear, Ford, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Permatex, Union Oil, etc.
Ralph retired from R.J. Reynolds in 1985 and passed away in September of 1998 after a lengthy illness. Wayne lost his life in January of 1998 when a duck-hunting boat he was on collided with an oil rig near Intracoastal City, La. I¿m sort of glad they are not around to see the end of all of this. They would be very, very sad and would have great difficulty handling it.
Of course, both of them would have been hired by people in the business to stay on in some capacity because they not only loved racing, they understood it. The main thing was that they understood the race fans. They weren¿t afraid to get down there, get their hands dirty and get involved with the people that make this whole thing go, and that is the fans themselves.
R.J. Reynolds will definitely be missed.