DAYTONA BEACH — It should have been Kasey Kahne's house party, but it just wasn't jumpin'. The made-for-stilted-television draw party in February for the pre-Daytona 500 Budweiser Shootout was his first major at-track gig as the replacement for longtime Bud pitch man Dale Earnhardt Jr., who thrived in these situations.
Even at 28, Kahne is the guy who gets carded picking up a six-pack.
"If I have a hat on and I've shaved, I get carded for sure," he admitted, sheepishly.
As Kahne stared into the red-slathered throng, Earnhardt Jr. and Sr. flags swayed. Couldn't the key grip have brought one of his No. 9s? As he cracked open a metal bottle to reveal his starting position in the nonpoints Cup season opener, out tumbled a piece of paper bearing an "8," Earnhardt Jr.'s former number.
Kahne wasn't going to become the Bud Man overnight. But he's just about got it figured out now.
"We've taken his Kasey Kahne image pre-Budweiser and we put him through our marketing initiatives," said Tim Schoen, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Anheuser-Busch. "Our outlets and both parties are enjoying it quite well."
Kahne attracted Budweiser, Schoen said, partly because of his performance — six Sprint Cup wins in 2006 and 10th in the standings entering Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway — and partly because his growing popularity with women made him the perfect candidate to boost a sagging demographic. There was also an existing relationship with his team owner, George Gillett Jr.
"There was this notion (Kahne) isn't a beer guy, but he really is and I think he's proved that in the first five months of the association," Schoen said.
Oh, how he has proved it. There have been brewery tours, keg-side chats with 5,000 wholesalers, grocery store appearances. Being the Bud Man entails much more than tilting a few with the distributors and remembering to act like it went down smooth and refreshing.
Though the 33-year-old Earnhardt, who left Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Mountain Dew and the National Guard at Hendrick Motorsports, continues to provide sponsors the best value for their investment, Kahne has more than held his own, said Eric Wright, vice president of research and development at Joyce Julius & Co. which tracks sponsor value in relation to television exposure. Earnhardt provided Budweiser $107-million in exposure value through 15 race telecasts last season while Kahne was at $94-million at the same point this season. Part of the reason is Kahne has won two Sprint Cup events (and the all-star race), something Earnhardt didn't do in his last 62 races with the brand.
But Kahne is establishing his own niche.
"Pretty good so far," Wright said. "Success on the track has obviously been key to this in terms of exposure, but he's maybe not as mainstream popular (as Earnhardt) and that plays a part in these telecasts. But he's holding his own, doing very well."
Kahne has insisted he's more of a frolicker than most realize: "He really likes drinking beer," Schoen said. He likes working outside and playing on machinery, so his real self was far more true to a Bud Man than a guy who dances to the Scorpions in heart-adorned pink and blue firesuits in one of his insurance spots. He has been the life of the party, he said, it's just no one has noticed.
"I've been (fun) for three years," he said. "Maybe it wasn't noticed, but I didn't start yesterday."