The story goes like this: In 1970, Junior Johnson needed to find a sponsor. Quickly. At the time, NASCAR was in dire straits. Having shifted their marketing strategies, Ford, Chevy, and Dodge had pulled their sponsorships and engineering support from the sport, which made spare parts and engines hard to come by. In April, Johnson was nearly out of money. He’d announced that he would close his garage in Wilkes County and disband his racing team by the end of the year. It looked like one of the greatest NASCAR drivers and owners of all time might be heading back to a career in chicken farming.
Johnson may have been out of money, but the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company had plenty.
Car owner Junior Johnson (in plaid pants) and Cale Yarborough (far left) accepting the Winston Cup trophy in 1977 from R.J. Reynolds executive C.A. Tucker. photograph by ISC IMAGES & ARCHIVES VIA GETTY IMAGES
Days before Johnson announced that he was broke, President Richard Nixon, an avid pipe smoker, signed a bill that banned cigarette advertising on television. At the time, tobacco companies were, by far, the largest advertisers on the big three networks. Since 1967, they’d been forced by federal law to run one anti-smoking ad for every three cigarette commercials. That move had reduced the number of smokers, but Congress wanted to go further. The tobacco companies had resisted an all-out TV ban, but then they realized a few things: Public opinion had swung against them. If their pro-smoking commercials would go away, so would the anti-smoking ads. What’s more, if tobacco companies couldn’t advertise on TV, they’d have tens of millions of dollars to spend on other forms of marketing.
That’s when Junior Johnson reentered the picture. “I was lookin’ for a couple of hundred thousand a year to sponsor my race team,” Johnson once said of his first meeting with RJR. The company was willing to make Johnson an offer. A big offer.
“They said, ‘Man, we’re lookin’ to spend millions.’
“I said, ‘Well, then, I ought to get you together with Bill France at NASCAR. You need to sponsor the whole series.’ ”
And that’s how the top prize in stock car racing came to be named for RJR’s best-selling product, Winston cigarettes.
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But there’s another important character in this story: Ralph Seagraves.
Ralph’s son, Colbert, remembers his dad being gone a lot. “When he first started out, he attended every Winston Cup race,” he says. “He would leave on Wednesday or Thursday and come back on Sunday night or Monday morning. And he’d be in the office Tuesday and Wednesday and then be gone again.”
Although Ralph eventually earned his high school equivalency degree, his formal education had ended in eighth grade. Still, his natural skill as a salesman propelled him into the upper levels of RJR. “He was good at putting people together,” Colbert says. In fact, he was the one who talked to Junior Johnson about a sponsorship. And when RJR decided to go all in on NASCAR, Ralph was the one who had to make it work. “They really didn’t know how to market their product,” Colbert said of NASCAR. There were only a few people in NASCAR’s marketing department at the time. But RJR? They knew what to do.
Colbert Seagraves father, Ralph (second from left), played an important part in the sport. photograph by Joey Seawell
At this point, it’s worth taking a moment to step back and recall the paradoxical legacy of tobacco here in North Carolina. Talk to a farmer in this state, and they might wax poetic about the cash crop that brought them more money than anything else that grows. Talk to folks around Winston-Salem, and they’ll describe the generosity of the Reynolds family and the amenities that the city wouldn’t have without their largesse. Square all of that with the fact that tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
As executive director of the Winston Cup Museum, Colbert Seagraves helps keep the memory of a pivotal period of stock car racing alive. photograph by Joey Seawell
Ralph Seagraves was a smoker. Colbert is not. He explains the tobacco paradox by comparing cigarettes to alcohol and fast food, saying that too much of anything is bad.
“My dad’s philosophy was this: We don’t encourage anybody to smoke,” Colbert says. “But if you do smoke, we encourage you to smoke our products.”
Using TV to encourage people to smoke their products without advertising on TV? That took more than just cutting a check to NASCAR. When RJR began its sponsorship of what became the Winston Cup in 1971, it had to rebuild the entire sport. For one thing, television didn’t truly capture the speed of race cars that could hit 190 miles per hour at Talladega and Daytona. The long lenses on cameras made the cars look slow. So to convey the appearance of speed, RJR asked tracks to paint their single-colored walls with red and white stripes, which would whiz past in the background. The word “Winston” also appeared on the wall every 100 yards or so.
The Winston Cup Museum displays more than two dozen cars at a time and has 30 to 40 more in storage. The museum rotates its displays every few months. photograph by Joey Seawell
Then there were the venues themselves. “Eight racetracks were on the verge of bankruptcy when R.J. Reynolds got involved,” Colbert says. “Reynolds paid the purse, all the expenses, and all the advertising for those eight tracks to get out of the red and into the black. They didn’t ask for anything in return.” Ralph Seagraves helped find sponsors for racing teams, including for the Wood Brothers, Junior Johnson, and Petty Enterprises. RJR wasn’t just a NASCAR sponsor. It was a partner. If NASCAR wasn’t successful, then RJR would be throwing its marketing money away. So the tobacco company helped improve things that had nothing to do with the competition on the track. Before the Winston Cup, women weren’t allowed in the pits or garages. That changed. One of Atlanta Motor Speedway’s proudest early accomplishments was the addition of a large women’s restroom. “You wanted to make sure that you made fans out of the wives so that the husbands could go. They wanted it to be a family sport,” Colbert says. Plus, they knew that racing fans were extremely loyal to companies that were involved in racing.
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The partnership that Ralph Seagraves created and his son celebrates ended in 2003, after a flood of anti-tobacco lawsuits and legislation. Today, though, the partnership lives on inside the Winston Cup Museum, just north of downtown Winston-Salem. The museum, which has been open since 2005, owns a ton of old Winston Cup memorabilia donated by RJR. “NASCAR doesn’t focus on this part of its history,” Colbert says. As executive director, it’s his job to preserve the memory of the series’ 33-year run.
Colbert strolls around the museum, among cars once driven by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jimmy Spencer, and Wendell Scott. He lingers near a display case dedicated to his father. Belt buckles, championship rings, and photos show the impact that RJR had on the sport, and how the series’ sponsor helped define the Winston Cup era. Colbert smiles as a screen cycles through pictures of Ralph and a young Colbert at all sorts of events. “There’s him,” he says, pointing at his dad. “And there’s me.” To Colbert, in this museum, NASCAR still feels like family.