Can An Outlaw Wear A White Hat?

Kurt Busch

Fans reach out to Kurt Busch last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway after he finished sixth in the Indianapoils 500. (Photo: Getty Images)


The beat from the rotor blades provided the opening notes for the performer’s entrance. Fans pressed against each other and a fence that separated them from this stage. They craned their necks to glimpse the showman.

The helicopter’s door slid open. He emerged to cheers.

Shame he couldn’t hear it.

Kurt Busch - the self-proclaimed “Outlaw” - has heard cheers before, but probably not like this. The shouts, hollers and yells were laced with respect, admiration and affection. The reaction mirrors new marketing scores that show a significant jump for Busch since last fall.

While Busch couldn’t hear the fans, their cheers drowned by the helicopter’s blades after it landed at Charlotte Motor Speedway a short time after his sixth-place Indianapolis 500 run, he could see their excitement.

“You could see the movements in people’s arms,’’ Busch said. “You could see people had their hats off, and they were waving them and there was this big commotion.’’

NASCAR fans were welcoming back one of their own.

If you like your coffee strong and heroes blunt, then good chance you’ve been a fan of Busch’s for a while.

You’ve often been in the minority. In these pacified times where everyone must receive a participation ribbon, that Clint Eastwood-type character is rebuked instead of revered. Busch’s actions led to a free fall that saw him go from driving for car owner Roger Penske to trying to rebuild his career with James Finch’s underfunded single-car team.

It took two years, but Busch returned to an elite team this year, joining Stewart-Haas Racing this season and winning at Martinsville Speedway.

Busch admits he’s made his mistakes - many can be found on YouTube - but his bid to run all 1,100 miles of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 last month seems to have changed how some view him.

Attempting to do something that only three men had done - none since 2004 - raising awareness for the Armed Forces Foundation and his strong run in the Indianapolis 500, shined a spotlight on Busch. He handled the attention without incident.

His scores in the Davie-Brown Index, which determines a celebrity’s ability to influence brand affinity, have increased significantly since October.

His overall score jumped nearly 4.5 points to 49.21, placing him seventh among NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers (active or retired). He trails only Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

Busch scores increased at least three points in such key areas as awareness (increase of 5.07 points), appeal (up 4.33), influence (up 3.98) and trust (up 3.64). He ranks eighth among Cup drivers (active or retired) in awareness, trailing the same six as in his overall DBI score and Kyle Busch.

“That’s a fairly substantive shift,’’ said Peter Laatz, executive vice president of Repucom, a global company that measures impact and valuation of sponsorships across several sports, including NASCAR. “There’s generally not huge shifts of five to 10 points.’’

Laatz also said it wasn’t surprising to see Busch’s numbers rise since the most recent scores were collected June 5, shortly after Busch’s run in both races.

Busch’s effort also gained attention elsewhere. Joyce Julius and Associates, which evaluates and measures corporate sponsorships, noted that Busch had been referenced by the media 2.5 more times than Indy 500 pole-sitter Ed Carpenter in the week leading up to that race.

Busch also received public support from fellow NASCAR drivers via social media, providing more goodwill toward Busch.

“Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. threw down the gauntlet of whether you like it or not you’re representing NASCAR,’’ Busch said.

Busch gladly accepted that responsibility.

Does this recent surge in popularity make Busch more marketable? That has yet to be determined.

“On the sponsorship side, I think he’s become more of a stable base, I think he’s probably matured a little bit,’’ Laatz said. “I think his DBI scores are going to show that his level of breakthrough, meaning his personality and awareness is probably the one thing that is holding him down. He’s not a super-appealing guy in terms of the DBI scores ... but outside of that, the level of breakthrough and the level of endorsement qualities are all where they need to be.’’

Busch knows this run might have given a new chance with fans.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,’’ Busch said. “I wanted to make sure my first impression in IndyCar was done the best way I could.’’

And with it, it seems as if he has re-introduced himself to some NASCAR fans.

After climbing from the helicopter and waving back to the fans, Busch headed toward the stage for driver’s introduction before the Coca-Cola 600. When the fencing ended, people swarmed Busch, taking pictures, shaking hands and reveling in his presence.               

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