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Slippery slope of liquor

NASCAR policy on sponsors confusing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR is continuing its version of the Prohibition Act, and Jeff Burton is paying for it.

Oh, you still can see that Budweiser car on the track every week, or the Miller Lite model, if you prefer. Don't forget the Silver Bullet Coors Light machine.

And the title sponsor of NASCAR's top feeder series is Busch beer. But what's a few beers among friends? Just stay away from those cocktails.

Actually, it's OK to have a gin and tonic in the comfort of your luxury suite at NASCAR events. But for goodness sake, NASCAR wants to keep the Tanqueray logo off the hood of a racecar.

The hypocrisy of NASCAR's stance on alcohol has people at Roush Racing shaking their heads in disbelief.

Burton is one of the better drivers on one of the best teams in Nextel Cup, but he has competed all season without a primary sponsor for the No. 99 Ford. Team president Geoff Smith said he doesn't know if the operation will continue all year.

Roush Racing has a sponsor ready to step in and spend an estimated $15 million per year on the team, but it's off-limits under NASCAR's odd rules.

The potential sponsor is Diageo, a London-based firm that distributes many of the top-selling brands of liquor in the world. Some of those are Smirnoff, Crown Royal, Johnny Walker, Tanqueray, and Jose Cuervo.

NASCAR chairman Brian France said they carefully considered the team's request to allow Diageo, but decided against it.

"We think the timing is just not right," France said. "We looked at all the circumstances, but we aren't ready to throw out a 30-year policy."

Meanwhile, Crown Royal is the title sponsor of the IROC series, which runs in conjunction with NASCAR events and includes NASCAR drivers.

Further blurring the lines is the fact that Smirnoff Ice, a premium malt beverage, was the sponsor on the hood of Matt Kenseth's car several times last year during his championship season.

Kenseth even did a TV commercial for Smirnoff Ice. And that's where France says NASCAR makes its distinction. If you can't advertise it on network TV, you can't put it on the car.

Allowing hard liquor as a sponsor for a car shown regularly on television might circumvent the policy of not allowing those products to advertise on the networks.

"It's a longstanding rule going back into the 1970s," France said. "That's not to say that our television partners are for or against allowing spirits, but it's another element we had to consider."

That didn't stop NASCAR from having Winston as title sponsor of the Cup series for 32 years. And it didn't stop NASCAR from allowing Jimmy Spencer to drive a Winston-sponsored car for several years.

France's response is that Winston was grandfathered in before the rules changed.

"But if a cigarette company wanted to come into the sport today, we would look at it differently."

France said the current political climate is another reason NASCAR decided against eliminating the hard liquor ban.

"The [Janet Jackson] incident at the Super Bowl has caused a real crackdown of what's broadcast on national television," France said. "We have to look at how things are presented. And hard liquor and cars have another element you have to consider."

Presumably, France is talking about drinking and driving. Can't beer also cause those problems?

The mixed messages are everywhere. Brian Vickers, who is 20, wasn't allowed to compete in the IROC series this year because of Crown Royal's sponsorship of the series. Last year, Vickers won the Busch Series championship.

NASCAR didn't allow to sponsor Derrike Cope's car this season because it portrayed the wrong image and wasn't in good taste. But Kim Crosby is driving the Boudreaux's Butt Paste Dodge in the Busch Series.

Where you draw the line requires some tough judgment calls for NASCAR. But some people feel the curves in the line defy logic.

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