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"Thirty years? Was it really that long ago?"
Just-inducted NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, he of the strong handshake and even stronger memory, squinted one eye as he did the math in his head. He calculated back to 1983, the first season that Budweiser rode on the hood of a Cup Series car. It was his first season away from Petty Enterprises, calling the shots for Billy Hagan's Stratagraph Racing.
"I guess it was 30 years, wasn't it? You know people forget, but of all the great drivers and teams who drove a car with that sponsor, from Waltrip to Bill Elliott to Dale Junior, the first to win a race for them was Terry Labonte."
That first season started poorly, as the King of Beers crashed out and finished 10th in the 16-car all-star race that now bears its name, the Budweiser Shootout. It ended much better, with three poles, a fifth-place finish in points and a nail-biting door-to-door Halloween weekend victory over Tim Richmond at Rockingham.
|Terry Labonte was the first driver of a Budweiser-sponsored car and got the company its first Cup victory.|
In the three decades since, Budweiser has rumbled on through 1,035 races and 11 drivers, amassing 56 wins, 43 poles and more than 16,000 laps led. But the big red insignia has managed to transcend the realm of mere stats, settling into the upper echelon of racing's most recognizable paint jobs.
"I think you look back over the history of NASCAR, nearly 70 years of it now, and there are only a few sponsors that are just as famous as any driver or racetrack," says Waltrip, who in 1985 won Budweiser's only Cup title, driving the No. 11 Bud Chevy for Junior Johnson. "You think about STP, the Tide Ride, there aren't many. It's a very short list and the Bud car is on that list. No doubt about it."
Anheuser-Busch was already well into the racing business before it finally decided to purchase space on a NASCAR hood in 1983. Busch became title sponsor of the Busch Clash (now Bud Shootout) in 1979 and put their name on the Busch (now Nationwide) Series in '82. And they were already involved in disciplines ranging from Indy cars to speed boats to land-speed record attempts. Eventually the Bud brand reached out into race titles, partnerships with racetracks, and NASCAR itself.
"All that is great, but I really think there's no substitute for being on a race car," says Johnson, who lured Bud away from Hagan in '84. The following year he decided to put the brand on two cars at once. In 1985 that kind of thinking wasn't just out of the box. It was downright revolutionary. "We already had Darrell in the 11 car, so we hired Neil Bonnett and put him in the 12 car."
Then the Last American Hero starts laughing.
"Problem was, we didn't have no No. 12 cars, so we got to building in a hurry."
This presented a particularly prickly issue when it came time to take preseason publicity photos. So for the shoot, Johnson painted up one Bud car for both teams, with a number 11 on one door and a number 12 on the other. Waltrip's team posed with one side, the car was flipped around, and Bonnett's team posed with the other.
"If you look at the roof of the car in those pictures it's pretty obvious what we were up to," the Hall of Famer says. "Luckily, not a lot people noticed. Everything looked normal in the pictures, but it was pretty crazy."
"Looking back, you might say that was kind of fitting," says Jeff Hammond, then crew chief on Waltrip's car. "Because from the outside, everything might have looked normal about that two-car team. But the reality was it was pretty crazy, too."
Crazy as in the two teams grew to despise each other. The three-year feud between Johnson's two shops, flames the owner fanned in the sparking competition, proved to be a media windfall for Budweiser. And that "We'll show them" atmosphere resulted in 16 wins over three years.
Budweiser stayed with Johnson through 1994, though the team contracted it back to one car. That car was driven once again by Labonte, followed by Geoff Bodine and Bill Elliott, who made the rare beer sponsor swap and barely missed out on the brand's second Cup title in '92.
"We lost the championship to Darrell in '85 when I was driving the Coors car," Elliott recalls. "I got a lot of attention that year for not knowing how to handle all the media and the extra stuff that came with winning the Winston Million. But seven years later, when I went to drive for Junior, I figured out that if you drive for Budweiser, it's like that all the time. They had me running all over the place."
The term "sponsorship activation" hadn't yet been invented in '85 or even '92. Looking back, Budweiser may have invented the entire concept. At the very least they perfected it.
"It was a lot," admits Ken Schrader, who took over as the Bud driver when the brand left Johnson for Hendrick Motorsports in 1995. "Every week during the week you were off to visit a brewery somewhere. Or going up to St. Louis to visit the headquarters. Or doing a hospitality appearance on race morning. Now that's totally normal, but back then it was like, 'Wait you want me to do what? On the morning of the race?'"
As a result, the Budweiser drivers formed a bit of an unofficial fraternity. Only the ones who had been there understood the extra workload it took to be the Bud guy. When one driver took over, his predecessors pulled him aside to congratulate him on the honor, warn him of the schedule and inform him of the perks.
"Yeah, the perks," Schrader says with a wink. The St. Louis native kept a business relationship with his hometown company for more than a decade after driving their Cup car. "They're pretty good perks."
He's talking about two in particular. First, of course, was the free beer. ("They lost money on me on that deal," Schrader jokes.) Second was the giant bump in royalty checks. When you're associated with one of America's most recognizable brands, fans are going to buy the T-shirts and die-cast cars no matter what driver's name is on the door.
"I think that has a lot to do with the loyalty that seems to exist for guys who drove that car," admits ESPN analyst Ricky Craven, who piloted the number 25 Bud Chevy for Hendrick in 1997-98. "Not the perks, but more the responsibility you felt representing an iconic company like that. You look at the history behind it, and when you end up behind the wheel of that car you can't help but feel that weight."
Dale Earnhardt understood that weight. And in 1999, when he expanded Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s still-new Cup Series effort to make room for his son -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- he recruited Budweiser to come on board. For the next eight seasons, Little E and the Big B went on a meteoric run that was surrounded with more hype and fan support than any driver-sponsor combo before or since. They won 17 races, including the 2004 Daytona 500, scored three top-5 points finishes and led the league in Super Bowl commercials.
|There may not be any driver more tightly connected to Budweiser in the fans' minds than Dale Earnhardt Jr., even though he parted ways with the brand after the 2007 season.|
"I think the timing of our deal was kind of perfect in a lot of ways," Earnhardt Jr. recently admitted. "We caught the sport kind of on this wave, when a lot of new, young fans were coming in and they connected with us. Old-school fans who'd been around and supported that brand and its drivers long before I came along, they were on board, too. And we were able to win some big races for them. It was a real special time."
That youth movement moved on to Kasey Kahne, who won four races and five poles from '08-10. And the old-school feel returned last season, when the brand connected back to the Earnhardt legacy with Richard Childress Racing and Kevin Harvick.
Even as the company itself has changed -- in 2008 Anheuser-Busch was purchased by Brazilian-Belgian corporation InBev, creating AB InBev -- the NASCAR ties have remained. Last season Harvick piloted the Bud car to four wins, its highest total since Dale Junior's six in '04, and a third-place points finish, its highest since Earnhardt did the same in '03.
And even in a time of reduced sponsorships, including theirs, the brand has stayed on the Budweiser Shootout and, of course, on the hood of a NASCAR stock car.
"We're proud to say that our commitment is the same and that our fans are just as loyal," says Brad Brown, Budweiser's vice president, sports & entertainment marketing and an Anheuser-Busch employee for 20 years. "People ask me all the time what's my favorite winning moment for the Bud car. I say it's the one that's coming up. I'll take Kevin Harvick with the Sprint Cup in his hands in November, nearly 30 years after Darrell Waltrip won our first."
Just as it was for Waltrip, Bonnett, Labonte, Earnhardt and everyone in between, they won't be sprayed with champagne. It'll be Budweiser.
"And yes," Harvick says, grinning at the thought, "It will be free."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.