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Columbia Cup Memories – Tobacco ‘Ban’ Hits Hydros Before NASCAR

Smokin Joe's Hydro - on docks by Columbia River

2003 was the last season NASCAR Winston Cup ran with sponsorship from RJ Reynolds, the tobacco giant.   Matt Kenseth was the last such Winston Cup winner, after 33 years. But before that parting of ways,  in the late 80’s and early 90’s they sponsored a hydro too.

Painted in the characteristic “NASCAR” style red, white and black, the Winston Eagle raced in dozens of hydro events before becoming the Smokin’ Joes.    Taken from a promotional character created by the company, the Smokin’ Joes hydro was a distinct yellow and purple-blue boat that also stood out on the water.

Mark Tate was the driver, and achieved tremendous success in both the Eagle and Joe’s boats.  But their success was fleeting.   The Smokin’ Joes camel cartoon figure came under attack for allegedly targeting teens and younger people to take up smoking, and the mid-1990’s were the beginning of the tobacco lawsuits.

The huge tobacco settlement (which was initially spurred on by former WA State Governor Christine Gregoire when she our state’s attorney general)  was ultimately the reason RJ Reynolds left NASCAR after 2003.  The company cited profit issues, but all the controversy over smoking pushed them to the wayside.

Eventually, the Smokin’ Joes went away, like many other tobacco-related sponsorships.  And a few years later,  NASCAR went searching for a new national sponsor and signed with Nextel, who eventually was bought out by Sprint.   It’s the Sprint Cup today.

But regardless of your opinions on the issue of tobacco in sports,  the Smokin’ Joes was a beautiful, fast boat that stood out on the waters of the Columbia.


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