The NHRA has began legal action against Coca-Cola Co. after the soft drink giant severed its title sponsorship of the sanctioning body’s professional championships through its Mello Yello brand.
In a letter to NHRA competitor information website nhraracer.com, NHRA President Glen Cromwell said that the partnership, which began in 2002, was contracted through to 2023, and accused Coca Cola of taking advantage of COVID-19 to break the deal:
2020 is a year we will never forget. As the country and the world paused in the face of COVID-19, NHRA, like other sports sanctioning bodies, canceled and postponed events. We had to do our part to protect public health and our decisions were based on evolving governmental and public health guidance. We worked with our entire racing community, government authorities and experts to return to racing in a prudent way. Now, we are one of the few sports anywhere that’s successfully returned to operating with spectators, with protocols in place to support those operations.
Like many organizations, the pandemic impacted our finances. For example, without fans in the stands, we were forced to reduce purses. The good news is that our overall financial health remains strong and we are excited to gear up for our 70th anniversary in 2021. We are taking a bit more time to announce the 2021 national event schedule so we can have fuller information and more certainty. The schedule might look different than before – it might start later and it might start on the east coast – but it will be packed with what everyone expects from NHRA racing.
I’m truly proud to say that the NHRA is the largest and greatest auto racing organization in the world, and we have all of you to thank for that, as well as everyone else with a passion for NHRA racing. When the pandemic struck, our entire racing family focused on everyone’s health and safety. On the pro series side, we continued to work closely with our series sponsor, Coca-Cola, and their Mello Yello brand. Even though they decided to withhold a payment from us during the pandemic, they worked with us and all systems were go for their sponsorship to continue, as contracted, through the end of 2023.
Recently, Coca-Cola had a change of heart, and told us they would walk away from their agreement to sponsor our professional series — not at the end of 2023, as promised in their agreement, but now, after being with us since 2002. We’re deeply disappointed that they’ve taken this position.
NHRA has always treated our sponsors as part of our family. Family sticks together when times get tough. But it seems The Coca-Cola Company is using the pandemic as an opportunity to break their promise. We can’t let that stand. We owe it to everyone who makes the NHRA so excellent – all our employees, teams, tracks, fans, partners and sponsors – to hold Coca-Cola to its promises.
Today, in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, we filed a lawsuit against The Coca-Cola Company. We have never filed a lawsuit like this in our history, and we never expected to be forced to take action against such a longstanding partner. We value relationships with our sponsors. We do not take this action lightly. But we are unwavering in our belief that we have no other option to protect our rights and the interests of our racing community, especially the racers whose purse was funded in large part by this agreement.
Thank you for all you have done these past few months. We will continue to work with the greatest sponsors in the world, and together, we will cross many more finish lines, stronger than we have ever been before.
When contacted by RACER for a response, a Coca-Cola Co. spokesperson said: “The NHRA’s allegations against The Coca-Cola Company are unfounded and we will defend the lawsuit accordingly.”
This story was updated after publication to include the statement from Coca-Cola Co.