The Rise And Fall Of Big Tobacco Money In Motorcycle Racing

MotoGP as we know it has Big Tobacco to thank.

Wayne Rainey. Marlboro Yamaha.
Wayne Rainey. Marlboro Yamaha.Gold & Goose

Racing fans remember the decades-long period beginning in the mid-1980s as a coming of age for motorcycle grand prix racing. Prior to 1985, tobacco sponsorship had a relatively small presence in the grand prix paddock, but when Rothmans and Lucky Strike joined Marlboro and the European names, they became the vice-pushing patrons of GP racing. The blue smoke of two-stroke prototypes was redolent of cigarette money, and it mingled in the air with the vainglorious attempt to bring GP racing out of the marketer's ash heap and onto an even playing field with its more commercially successful four-wheeled counterpart.

As early as 1968, cigarette advertising was banned on UK television, so sponsoring motorsports became a logical way for Big Tobacco to spend its advertising budget. Motorsports provided a loophole to get logos on screens and build brand image in the reflected glow of racing’s romanticism.

Under the Marlboro signs, Cagiva-mounted John Kocinski leads Luca Cadalora and Mick Doohan in the 1994 Malaysian Grand Prix.
Under the Marlboro signs, Cagiva-mounted John Kocinski leads Luca Cadalora and Mick Doohan in the 1994 Malaysian Grand Prix.Gold & Goose

Cigarette money changed the complexion of the grand prix paddock. And with the knowledge that it was occurring on borrowed time, it encouraged a now-legend culture of living fast in the present moment. But it wasn’t all moneyed revelry and all-night parties. The influx of capital also increased the sport’s professionalism as marketers made sure their cig-peddling bosses got their money’s worth.

With a fistful of dollars, you can build a bespoke crankshaft to make racing more competitive, or you can spend it on marketing so more people can watch the action. In this burgeoning golden era, you could do both.

Rothmans hired a film crew to ensure every race had coverage and TV networks worldwide had access to copyright-free images. The best riders got their million-dollar contracts. Race teams got their dreamed-of budgets. Racing became better than ever as satellite teams got their share of the pot.

Wayne Gardner on the Rothmans Honda in 1988.
Wayne Gardner on the Rothmans Honda in 1988.Gold & Goose

The Europe-only calendar disappeared once and for all as tobacco sponsors pushed for overseas rounds to increase their visibility in strategic markets. Fly-away races in the US and elsewhere became a permanent fixture, further establishing the jet-setting glamour of motorcycling’s elite racing class.

By the end of the ’93 season, as restrictions on tobacco advertising tightened, Rothmans exited the paddock. The writing was on the wall, though teams were still heavily dependent on tobacco money well into the new millennium.

Wayne Rainey and John Kocinski racing.
Rainey and Kocinski.Gold & Goose

In 2003, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC)—a broad-sweeping regulatory treaty that includes provisos for tobacco advertising and sponsorship—was signed by 168 countries, thereby making it far more difficult for Big Tobacco to maintain the same presence in the grand prix paddock. The treaty came into effect in 2005 just as the four-stroke era was finding its footing.

If grand prix racing’s last golden age was built on the back of a smoker’s paradise, race fans—ethical qualms aside—mustn’t entirely mourn its demise. Feeding off the cash cow that is Big Tobacco never entirely ended.

Lawson, Wayne Rainey, and Kevin Schwantz race.
Lawson, Rainey, Kevin Schwantz: golden age.Gold & Goose

Earlier this year, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta reiterated the series promoter’s enduring relationship with Philip Morris International (PMI): “Dorna is passionate about constantly improving the sport and the fan experience. Every year, technology and innovation are helping to improve MotoGP racing. By working with PMI, we can make a difference by encouraging a positive change at MotoGP events around the world.”

What Ezpeleta refers to as the “positive change” coincides with the message of Mission Winnow, Ducati Corse’s 2019 sponsor and PMI’s corporate responsibility initiative. PMI hasn’t stopped bankrolling Ducati’s GP racing effort since the Marlboro colors disappeared from the fairings, but the Mission Winnow branding makes it more publicly visible than it’s been in years.

Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden on the Marlboro-backed Ducati.
The bar code era and the search for loopholes. Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden on the Marlboro-backed Ducati.Gold & Goose

The Mission Winnow website declares: “PMI is transforming, and the change is real. Our passion for improvement and our belief in progress means that we are always winnowing, leaving behind old ways and methods and embracing new ideas and ways of doing business while setting new benchmarks in technology and invention.”

Those new ideas are e-cigarettes and their ilk.

PMI’s presence isn’t the only way that Big Tobacco’s effect has endured. Its money has left a legacy that still pays dividends in the hearts and minds of generations of race fans who forever associate cigarette names with racing glory. Can you picture Wayne Rainey’s factory Yamaha without the Marlboro colors on its sides? Or Freddie Spencer without the resplendent Rothmans stripes on his sleeves?

One thing is clear: Grand prix racing as we know it has much to do with cigarette money. And it may continue to be so.

Randy Mamola smiles in Lucky Strike livery.
Randy Mamola is all smiles in Lucky Strike livery.Gold & Goose