As the curtain closes on the 2007 NASCAR season, there’s many drivers and teams that will say goodbye to the glare of the public spotlight – and hello to the greener pastures of other dreams, retirement beckoning them elsewhere.
But in particular, there’s one sponsor whose departure may affect the future of the sport for several years to come, its legacy left ingrained every Sunday afternoon… a company who half of the current Nextel Cup field can thank for giving them the chance to succeed in stock car racing.
25 years ago, Anheuser-Busch decided to take a chance and put their backing behind a newly branded series that NASCAR was debuting. At the time, the Late Model Sportsman Division was undergoing major changes – changes that would ultimately turn the series into the second-most popular brand of NASCAR product. After much negotiation, the Busch Series was formed; and over time, the division was shaped to become the number one minor-league feeder system for Nextel Cup veterans. However, there is no underestimating its place in history, especially the longterm contribution that Anheuser-Busch made by being the name on the series throughout the last 25 years.
The Busch Series spawned from NASCAR’s short-track racing Sportsman Division, which was in existence from 1950 through 1967. NASCAR legends Ralph Earnhardt and Ned Jarrett were among its champions, with Jarrett moving up to be a two-time champ in the Cup series, as well. In 1968, its name was changed to the Late Model Sportsman Division, and the series began moving to larger racetracks, using bigger racecars to compensate.
But the problem with the series back then was that they were running too many races (sound familiar?). Just like the Cup schedule, the Sportsman divisions would run upwards of 60 races in a single season. Not only was it hard on the competitors to travel around and compete in all of the races, but it was difficult for NASCAR to police the competitors and to provide a level playing field. In light of that, NASCAR and Anheuser-Busch got together in 1982 and came up with a series that would run a leaner schedule, offer better purses, and have more uniform rules.
The move paid off. During their first two years as title sponsor, Anheuser-Busch put the name of the top-selling brand, Budweiser, on the series. The season consisted of 29 races contested mostly around the Southeast, but the series did travel as far north as Dover, Del. and as far west as Indianapolis, Ind.. The series competed at tracks like Hickory, Caraway, Langley and South Boston, venues that today are known for their weekly racing and the occasional Hooters Pro Cup race, but are no longer seen on the Busch Series schedule. Busch beer became the title sponsor in 1984 and has remained there through the last 23 years.
From those beginnings, thanks to the efforts of NASCAR and Anheuser-Busch, the series has grown over the years to become the second-most popular racing series in the nation. It routinely plays to crowds approaching 100,000 fans, and has even branched out to countries outside of the United States with races in Canada and Mexico. And the purses have certainly grown. In 1997, Randy Lajoie took home over $1,000,000 in winnings for the season. Last year, 15 of the top-16 drivers took home over $1,000,000 and Kevin Harvick, the series champion, made off with $2,850,000.
The series’ all-time winningest driver is Mark Martin, who has won 47 races in his Busch Series career. Interestingly, with all of that success, Martin has never won the series championship. Harvick has made the series his own personal playground and moved into second on the all-time wins list this season, and will probably overtake Martin as the all-time win leader before his career is over.
The Busch Series is not only a place to develop a driver for the move to the Nextel Cup Series (or at least used to be), but also is a place where some drivers can make a career. Some of the most famous names in Busch Series history – the men that made the series in their day – all were, for the most part, Busch lifers. Sam Ard, Jack Ingram, Larry Pearson; they all ran well in Busch and simply struggled everywhere else. Ard ran one Cup race, with Ingram running 19 and Pearson running 57. They ran 92, 275 and 259 Busch races, respectively. These forefathers were mentors to young drivers who came through the series, teaching them the ins and outs and unwritten policies, ultimately preparing the drivers to carry on the legacy that they spent years establishing. Many of the drivers in the Cup Series today learned valuable lessons that were passed along from these three gentlemen. There have been hundreds of Cup drivers who have competed in the Busch Series in the last 25 years, but amazingly, only one champion, Bobby Labonte, was able to go on to win a Cup championship.
Busch beer has been the face of the series for 23 years, and has done a lot to promote and develop a majority of the drivers who are now the stars that race on Sunday in the Cup series. They took a fledgling idea and turned it into a racing powerhouse that has become more popular than open-wheel racing, which, when the series started, dominated the American racing landscape. As they say goodbye this weekend, racing fans everywhere should raise a can in tribute to the beer that has had its name on the trophy for the last quarter of a century.
If Nationwide can do half as well as they can, the series should be in great shape.