Race Coverage Non Daily
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine
The last of the tobacco cars
In the end, the Red Man passed away quietly.
So did his buddies, Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man and the Skoal Bandit.
They all crossed the finish line together at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29 when Greg Biffle's red, white and black racecar took the checkered flag in that Saturday afternoon's poorly attended NASCAR Nationwide Series event.
The box score will simply show that a second-tier car led four laps and finished an unlucky 13th. But the story that the mere stats can't tell us is that an indomitable motorsports force took its last breath of carbon monoxide and stumbled to its death.
You see, Biffle's No. 27 Red Man Moist Snuff Ford Fusion was likely the last car in a major American motorsports series to carry the colors, cash and stain of Big Tobacco.
"I dunno," Biffle said as he posed for photos with the car and crew on the grid before the race, "Seems like we should be making a bigger deal out of this, no?"
His car owners certainly did. Mike Baker, co-owner of Baker Curb Racing and former owner of both the Bristol Motor Speedway and Nashville Motor Speedway was angry about losing his primary sponsor during these lean economic times. And anyone with a microphone handy was able to capture Baker's ire, a "they are taking away all our personal freedoms" speech pointed directly at the Obama White House.
New FDA rules that went into effect as summer arrived snuffed out the last remnants of snuff and all its leafy, smokeless tobacco counterparts from sports advertising, pulling them in line with similar cigarette restrictions that have been in place for a while now.
It was the last nail in a coffin whose construction began more than a dozen years ago, when sweeping tobacco regulation first sent shivers down the spine of what was then known as NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
"This deal they're talking about in Washington might break our bank," Dale Earnhardt said to me in the California Speedway garage the day that then-president Bill Clinton outlined his plans for slowing the tobacco marketing machine.
(I am never one to interject personal politics into my work, but I will say this: While recently digging old photo albums I found an image of myself at an amusement park wearing a red Winston Cup hat. I was 9-years-old. I also found pictures of me in Skoal Bandit gear at the age of 12 and a Joe Camel Racing T-shirt at the age of 14. Looking back, that doesn't seem quite right, does it?)
"I caught a lot of flack when I spoke up very quickly about welcoming Nextel (now Sprint) as the new title sponsor of the Cup Series," Jeff Gordon recalled over the Charlotte weekend that Red Man took its final laps. "The day of the announcement I said that I thought the sport would be able reach new audiences and new areas of marketing without the image that came with cigarettes. A lot of older guys within the sport really gave me grief about that. But I think that, looking back, I was right. And I meant it."
This from a man who won four Winston Cup titles, a Winston Million cash bonus and four additional Winston No Bull $5 million bonuses.
One of his current sponsors is Nicorette.
"It's sad, but it's just another bunch of water under the bridge," says Richard Petty, who won four of his seven championships during the Winston Cup era and has a perpetual wad of Red Man jammed between his cheek and gums. "Another rung on the ladder, you know what I mean? We needed that tobacco money to survive when they came along. And they took us to places we'd never dreamed of, OK? And they turned a lot of us ole country boys into millionaires. But tobacco's time was then. It was a great run. But it's someone else's turn now."
So, as Biffle's car has its decals pulled off back at the shop and his crew hangs up their Red Man apparel up in the closet, never to be worn again, let's take a moment to say goodbye.
Goodbye to the purple and gold Joe Camel Ford Thunderbirds of Hut Stricklin and Jimmy Spencer. You know, the one with the camel on the hood that was dressed like Amelia Earhart.
Fare thee well to Handsome Harry Gant's famous green Skoal Bandit No. 33 ride, with the black silhouetted cowboy in the red bandana, always seemingly on the verge of stealing another win.
Au revoir to the angry orange Kodiak Snuff Wintergreen bear, who led Rusty Wallace to the '89 Winston Cup title and Ricky Craven to the '95 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, and the white howling Timber Wolf that once rode on the lime green Pontiacs and Chevys of Kevin Grubb and the Green brothers.
Chattanooga Chew and David Pearson, Copenhagen with A.J. Foyt, Geoff Bodine in the Levi-Garrett Chevy going fender-to-fender with Dale Earnhardt, Skoal Classic on the pole with Rick Mast at the inaugural Brickyard 400 in '94. Even Ron Hornaday Jr.'s five-straight win streak with Longhorn Smokeless Tobacco on the hood of his NASCAR Truck Series machine one year ago.
All provided great memories and timeless NASCAR images, brought to us by the controversial cash crop that is tobacco.
Some will think back to those cars and see Red Man's ride into the sunset as a tearful closure to a bygone "good ole days" era of NASCAR. Others will view it as a move forward into a world that each day takes another step closer to completely weaning itself off of tobacco.
But most seem to stand with The King. Big Tobacco's time was then and today’s racers always make sure to thank them for all they did.
But it's someone else's turn.