RJR's Jerry Long: a major power behind-the-scenes in NASCAR for so many years (Photo: LA Reynolds)
By Mike Mulhern
Jerry Long did more to build NASCAR to what it is today than just about anyone I can think of.
Clearly Jerry Long needs to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, not only for a key role in saving the sport from seemingly imminent demise in the 1970s but also for his crucial work in bringing ESPN into NASCAR in the early 1980s and letting that then-new sports cable operation take the NASCAR story weekly into every little part of the country....thus laying the groundwork for the explosive growth of NASCAR racing in 1990s.
But -- given what looks for all the world like an anti-Reynolds bias now down in Daytona Beach, after the tobacco company not only sponsored but heavily marketed and promoted this sport for some 33 years – whether Long, or his ace lieutenants Ralph Seagraves and T. Wayne Robertson, ever make it into that already controversial Hall of Fame would seem iffy at best. When Seagraves' vast treasure-trove of NASCAR history and unique memorabilia was offered – free – to the Charlotte Hall of Fame, NASCAR turned it down.
What to make of NASCAR's apparent anti-Reynolds bias? Well, RJR men weren't exactly mild-mannered when it came to promoting...and that vigorous approach didn't set that well among some in Daytona, who felt they could do all the marketing and promotion themselves just as well.
So when RJR was finally forced out of sports marketing and had to abandon NASCAR in 2004, it was up to Daytona men to take up the job.
And the death in 2007 of Bill France Jr., who worked closely with Long over the years, was probably a demarcation line of sorts.
For more than 30 years RJR's Winston sports marketing division pumped up NASCAR racing, here 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki (Photo: NASCAR)
I talked with Jerry Long right after France's death that summer, and Long – as feisty as ever – had some pointed, insightful comments.
It was right along that point that NASCAR racing appeared to be lagging a bit, that the sport needed a new shot of energy. TV ratings the first half of 2007 were down markedly over 2006, and across the board, when we talked. And that decline would continue through the second half of that season.
I asked Long what he would do if he could pick up the phone and make something happen: "I would move the NASCAR postseason banquet to Las Vegas, because it's the entertainment capital of the world, and you could get celebrities and TV media and all sorts of publicity," he shot right back without hesitation.
"I would certainly do that."
This from the man who pushed NASCAR in the first place to move its annual banquet to New York City.
And in just a few weeks NASCAR will indeed finally have its Cup awards banquet in Las Vegas...
The media was one of Long's specialties, and of course media had to be handled deftly. So Long, in our 2007 talks, expressed his displeasure with NASCAR's loss of NBC, one of NASCAR's TV partners from 2001 through 2006; NBC left the sport and returning to the NFL after its six-year NASCAR run, and ESPN/ABC stepped into that half of the Sprint/Nextel Cup tour.
Long was, as it turned out, correct to worry about the loss of NBC. Because, for whatever reasons, ABC/ESPN simply hasn't produced the same TV ratings for NASCAR that NBC did; in its 2007 'chase,' ABC/ESPN averaged a 3.8 rating for the last eight races, and that was down 15 percent from NBC's 4.5 for the same eight in 2006. (And NBC's own 2006 chase ratings were in fact down from its sizzling 5.0 average for 2005.)
Whatever the situation with TV, down is down, and that's not good.
Long had some questions about NASCAR's game plan.
"You've got to have a good 'head of media,' and that's what we had at Reynolds," Long said. "We had that 'focus.' When you have that, you're going to win."
Long then added "And I'm not sure there is that singled-minded focus" within NASCAR.
Long talked about "continuity....media continuity." And he questioned whether NASCAR at that point really had it going.
"You have to bring in experts," Long told me. "People who really know how to spend money....and how to approach people.
"That doesn't happen by accident.
"I think Brian is missing some of that.
"You have to surround yourself with the best people. At Reynolds we had absolutely incredible people...and they've all gone on to become successes in other places."
In fact Long said he was more than surprised that NASCAR-Daytona didn't sign up many of the RJR sports marketing whizzes when Reynolds was forced to step aside. Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports group picked up some key RJR men over the years, but not Daytona.
"We figured when NASCAR negotiated the Nextel Cup sponsorship that they would pick up the whole R.J. Reynolds sports-marketing department," Long said.
"It was like a gift -- a $1 million no-brainer.
"But they took only one or two people.
"The rest of our key people went on to run tracks, six or eight of them."
"Because Bruton is smart, and he knew we had quality people who had their heads screwed on right," Long said.
And Long, having had several years to watch Nextel-Sprint in action marketing NASCAR, didn't seem very impressed with that part of the NASCAR marketing operation: "I know that Nextel can't bring anything to the party for Brian the way RJR brought it to the party for Bill Jr."
Long was also critical of NASCAR for dropping the annual pre-season 'Preview,' held in Winston-Salem for so many years, to sellout January crowds.
Daytona executives have moved that venture to the Florida track, in conjunction with January Daytona 500 testing; however that project has rarely drawn more than a couple thousand fans at best.
"The pre-season preview...for them not to pick that up?" Long said shaking his head.
"What an advantage they had. We used to draw thousands and thousands for that."
While Long and Bill France Jr. were close, Long and Brian France didn't seem to have much of a relationship. The younger France was coming in as the new boss, and Long was long since out of the game, officially at least, though from his perch in Winston-Salem Long certainly kept up with NASCAR.
During that summer three years ago Long said he wanted to talk with the third generation France and offer some advice from his years in the business.
That apparently never came about.