Ralph Seagraves liked to refer to himself as being “just a little ol’ cigarette salesman from Winston-Salem.”
In reality, he was much, much more than that. A longtime employee with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Seagraves was at the forefront of the effort in the early 1970s to combine the Winston tobacco name with the emerging NASCAR stock-car racing series.
The result was the formation of the Reynolds’ Special Events Operations, now known as Sports Marketing Enterprises, which Seagraves led as president for 13 years. In turn, RJR, gave an important infusion of sponsorship support to NASCAR that helped propel the Winston Cup Series to spectacular growth over the next 30 years.
For his behind-the-scenes work in the creation and expansion of NASCAR’s primary racing series, as well as his work with the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), Seagraves has been named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame 2008 Induction Class.
Joining Seagraves – who died in 1998 at age 69 – in the Class of 2008 are Art Arfons, Robert “Red” Byron, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Frank Kurtis and Everett “Cotton” Owens. The group will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame on April 24.
“This is a huge honor, especially for somebody who is not a driver or a car owner or a mechanic,” says Seagraves son, Colbert. “It’s neat that they still remember my dad. He retired in 1985, but he had a lot of influence on a lot of people. I’m glad they haven’t forgotten his accomplishments.”
Seagraves began his career with RJ Reynolds in 1955 as a salesman and rose through the ranks to become a division manager by the late ’60s. He was one of the RJR officials invited to a special company meeting in 1969 to discuss ways to promote their products after being prohibited by the federal government from running television and radio ads.
NASCAR legend Junior Johnson had proposed for RJR to sponsor his race team. Seagraves took the idea one step further and suggested that the company sponsor the entire racing series.
And thus the Winston Cup Series was born, with Seagraves helping lead the charge as president of RJR’s new Special Events Operations.
“My dad always told everybody, ‘I’m in the cigarette business, not the racing business.’ But he wanted to see NASCAR flourish and grow,” Colbert Seagraves says. “He was a huge racing fan, and he went out and sold NASCAR.”
Until his retirement from RJR in 1985, Seagraves forged sponsor relationships with several motorsports sanctioning bodies, along with golf, soccer, tennis and even hydroplane racing. He helped link individual race teams to potential sponsors, and aided racetrack operators in the upgrade of their facilities.
“My dad embraced change. He looked for different ways to market RJ Reynolds and keep them in the forefront,” Colbert Seagraves says. “I don’t think anybody got the value out of their sponsorships that RJ Reynolds did.”
Over the years, Seagraves watched as NASCAR went from being a regional niche sport to a lucrative national operation with television contracts and ratings that rivaled and eventually surpassed those of Major League Baseball and the NBA.
“Dad was always so proud of where Winston Cup came from to what it became,” Colbert Seagraves says. “He and the Frances (NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and son Bill France Jr.) saw the vision.
“They went through a lot of hard times. Some tracks were on the verge of bankruptcy (in the early 1970s). Had Winston had not come along, who knows what would have happened to NASCAR. It was a perfect marriage. NASCAR needed Winston and Winston needed NASCAR. It was a great working relationship.”