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It was at Gainesville, in March 1992, that Bernstein officially was crowned as the “King of Speed” by racing to NHRA’s first 300-mph quarter-mile pass. It’s this Full Throttle season, however, that he established a motorsports milestone -- 30 consecutive years with sponsorship from Budweiser, the “King of Beers.”
Another “king,” NASCAR’s Richard Petty, ran under the STP banner for 28 years.
TV commercials have depicted the Bud King being launched from an aircraft carrier and doing a Space Shuttle-like launch. Symbolically appropriate, because Bernstein launched a new era of sports marketing, and he did it with a phone call.
“I remember it just like yesterday,” the six-time champion said recently at Firebird Raceway. “It was late 1978 in Austin, Texas. My restaurant chain office was located there. My truck and trailer were parked outside with Chelsea King on it. I called up my good friend, Dan Brown, at the Budweiser wholesalership and said, ‘Come over and take a look at this. This is something you guys need to get into.’ And that’s how it all started.”
Brown arranged a meeting at Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis headquarters in spring 1979. Bernstein set up a display, with his car and trailer, for employees outside the main entrance. Instinctively, he knew selling was as important as winning.
Maybe more important.
“I felt drag racing met the criteria for a Budweiser drinker and they weren’t involved too much in NASCAR at the time. In all honestly, I think what happened is we had a gentleman up there at the time, Jack MacDonough (vice president of brand management), who was very visionary and able to see things a lot different than most people. His words to me were, ‘I can’t put Budweiser’s name on the back of football uniforms, baseball uniforms, or anything like that. But I can put it all over that race car and trailer. These are our drinkers.’”
Amazingly, Bernstein’s first deal got him $25,000. Plus $2,000 per race from the local wholesaler, a sum matched by the region.
Racers occasionally ask me, “How do you get a sponsor?” An equally important question is, “How do you KEEP a sponsor?” I always suggest they Google “Kenny Bernstein” and “Budweiser” as a landmark case study.
“What I think made it work was we really involved the local wholesaler,” said the winner of 30 Funny Car and 39 Top Fuel races. “That was the key. The local wholesaler was the one who you wanted to be really happy and get a lot out of it and help him sell beer in his community and give him the publicity. That was the backbone of it. We still do that today. We worked really hard on that and they, in turn, told St. Louis how great it was. It was a circle.