News & Media

Caraviello: Harvick blends in, forms strong bond with sponsor

April 13, 2011, David Caraviello,

FLORENCE, S.C. -- Visits grass roots of operation, says relationship with Budweiser is a natural fit

It was a little before 2 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon when the beep-beep-beep of a backing-up beer truck pierced the usual hum of traffic, and the big rig maneuvered over to the back door of a local Walmart. A slim figure in Budweiser colors jumped out of the passenger side of the cab and then climbed up into the trailer where he loosened straps that held fast carts full of beer. One such cart loaded with 18-bottle cases of that familiar red packaging was rolled out of the truck and through the opening to the store's receiving area.

"Don't be leaving this out in the sun," Kevin Harvick playfully warned a clerk.

Customers did double-takes and employees lined up for photographs as one of NASCAR's top drivers pushed a cart full of product made by his car sponsor into the store and over to the cooler, where he stacked it under a "welcome race fans" banner bearing his own image. What was designed as a media event to promote next month's race weekend at nearby Darlington Raceway instead became a glimpse into the relationship between driver and sponsor, two entities that share a car and a firesuit, and at the sport's highest level often become synonymous with one another.

Kevin Harvick stocks beer at Walmart in Florence, S.C. during an event for Crown Beverage.

"It's been very easy for me to be a part of the brand and fit, because it's just part of what I do. I like to drink beer and I like to relax. I'm like everybody else."


All of which made Wednesday a very big day at Crown Beverages, a company that supplies Anheuser-Busch products to Florence, Darlington and five other counties in this corner of South Carolina, and relies on a big race weekend to help make its year. Although Harvick is a regular at major Budweiser events -- he delivered cases via Clydesdales on Bourbon Street in New Orleans when his current paint scheme was unveiled -- it's not as common for him to visit the grass roots of his sponsor's operation. Crown employees were so giddy over the appearance that the "special day in this company's history" was even referenced in the prayer before lunch.

"It's never happened for us," said Schipp Johnston, Crown's chief operating officer. "Several weeks ago the track came to us and said they wanted to have a media day with Kevin, and could they have it here. We were like, wow, we'd never thought of that. So what it's been for us is, it's been a huge rejuvenation for our entire organization to get excited about Darlington. The race is huge for us, but we have spent and a lot of time and energy thinking about, how do we really maximize someone like Kevin as part of our team? To have him here made that conversation with the sales guys easy. Him being here, he's going to get in one of our trucks, he's going to deliver Budweiser ... you can't buy that. You just can't buy that. So it's been tremendous for us."

Harvick, whose primary car sponsor changed to Budweiser from Shell/Pennzoil in the offseason, has been to several Anheuser-Busch events already this year. But many of them have been larger-scale occasions, from the big car unveil in New Orleans to celebrity bartender appearances to a brewery tour in St. Louis. There are more coming, like a beer school for his Richard Childress Racing teammates in May. But Wednesday brought a rare opportunity to get down to the local level, to meet with distributors and truck drivers and product salesmen, to see how much his connection means to them, to visit a warehouse where his image is a constant presence. There was Harvick's face on a banner commemorating his Martinsville victory, on a sign pointing out how sales jump during race weekend, even on the side of a forklift.

A hood from his No. 29 car hung in one corner of a room. Harvick had never set foot in Crown Beverages before Wednesday, but he was already the company's top salesman. "You represent the brand," Johnston told him, "and driving that car sells beer."

That's just fine with Harvick, who seemed perfectly at ease in the environment. "There's a network of people that make all this stuff work, and usually it's not at corporate. It's guys out in the field, in facilities like this, that flat-out deliver the beer and make it all happen in each market. ... It's good to come in and see how it all works and get to meet the guys who make it all go around," he said.

"When you come to the facilities and you meet these guys, the enthusiasm level for the program goes up, too. They become more enthused about the race. You have more of a personal relationship with the people. And really, from a sponsorship side of it, personal relationships are more important than just being a car on a track or a guy walking around in a suit. When you can put names with people, and they start coming to the track, and you know who they are and can have casual conversion with them, that's more important than anything."

Harvick, who had been backed by Shell/Pennzoil the previous four years, and before that Goodwrench since the tumultuous beginning to his Cup career in 2001, said he asked a lot of questions when he and Budweiser were first paired together. He was well aware of the company's long history in NASCAR, dating back to 1983, and the almost iconic sponsor status it achieved during its long partnership with Dale Earnhardt Jr. What he discovered was a somewhat blue-collar brand that fit his blue-collar team and the blue-collar sensibilities of a driver who grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., and liked to enjoy an adult beverage on the golf course or in his down time. He found out he didn't have to dress up when he attended sponsor events. And the best part: "I get to drink beer. And not get in trouble for it," he said.

"This has been a very natural fit for me, because it's just who I am, and how I react on a daily basis, and the things I do on a daily basis," said Harvick, who has won twice this season and is defending champion of Sunday's event at Talladega Superspeedway. "It's been very easy for me to be a part of the brand and fit, because it's just part of what I do. I like to drink beer and I like to relax. I'm like everybody else."

He certainly looked that way Wednesday at Crown, blending right in -- well, except for the media horde trailing him and his face on signs and stand-up boards -- in a golf shirt, jeans and sneakers. Harvick held a 45-minute question-and-answer session in the distributorship's loading bay with about 100 people, most of them retailers and consumers who do business with the company. He was asked if he was the new Intimidator ("I don't think so. I just try to be myself"), about Sunday's event at Talladega ("It's still going to be Talladega. There's still going to be a big wreck somewhere") and whether he shared setup information with friends in the garage ("Some guys do it. Not me"). Then Johnston gave him a tour of the climate-controlled warehouse, which held in the neighborhood of 197,000 cases.

More than a few times Harvick stopped to have himself photographed next to towering stacks of beer. Of the 2.4 million cases Crown Beverages moves annually, roughly 65 percent of them are Budweiser or Bud Light. The race week is crucial -- last year the company moved 39,690 units during that span, more than any other week all year. A visit from arguably Budweiser's most visible sports spokesperson surely helps in that regard.

"We don't have to be sold on Kevin Harvick. What we want our guys to be sold on is, we've got a guy who is a tremendous spokesperson for us, who is a tremendous representative of the brand," Johnston said. "We have that opportunity, and now it's here. It's in your house. That conversation is easy. It makes it real easy to get excited about Darlington, because Darlington is a huge week for us, and it's our mission to dominate just like it is for him to win."

With that, it was time for Harvick and a driver to jump inside the cab of the big red tractor-trailer and make a delivery run. After all, race weekend looms for this town in northeastern South Carolina, and somebody has to make sure the beer coolers are full.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.