- Lynn Burkhead
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On a cloudy, threatening weekend across the Deep South, one thing seemed obvious this past weekend as the NASCAR Nation roared into "Sweet Home Alabama" for the running of the Aarons 499 Sprint Cup Series race at the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway.
Camo is cool, especially at nearly 200 miles per hour.
Or more accurately, Realtree camouflage is cool, the kind proudly worn by thousands of spectators rooting on their favorite driver from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Jeff Gordon to Kevin Harvick to Tony Stewart and others.
Bill Jordan, one of the men who helped start the camouflage revolution in the 1980s, is perhaps the key figure that helped bring his company's camo patterns from the hunting woods to the race track.
Jordan — who spent Saturday morning turkey hunting before flying over to the famed 'Bama track to help entertain a crowd of industry people gathered in the Realtree Suite — began his NASCAR involvement innocently enough with a friendship and eventual trackside merchandise business partnership with the late driver Davy Allison.
After Allison's death in a helicopter crash at Talladega in 1993, Jordan's involvement in NASCAR seemed to cool for a while.
But not for long.
"Through various connections, Bill kept meeting drivers," Realtree's Dodd Clifton said. "He met (owner) Richard Childress somewhere in that process. He (Childress) loved to hunt and the next thing you know, Realtree had helped to sponsor the Mike Skinner car.
"That led to the sponsorship of the Dave Marcis car and eventually, an associate sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt's #3 Chevy Monte Carlo SS."
As important as the business side of things were and are for Jordan, it was the passion for the outdoors that people like Childress, Earnhardt, and Allison shared with the Realtree CEO that helped to put everything into place.
"What got me involved with those guys was that they liked what I did," Jordan said. "Deer hunting was a common bond that we all had together.
Over the last decade or so, Realtree has come a long way in its involvement in NASCAR racing, establishing a highly visible presence in the garage and on the track.
That includes the following:
The company began its NASCAR involvement as an associate sponsor on Mike Skinner's #31 Chevy.
Realtree was the primary sponsor for Dave Marcis' #71 Chevy prior to his retirement from racing in 2002.
The company was an associate sponsor on the late Dale Earnhardt's legendary #3 Chevy from 1997 to his untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Realtree is and has been an associate sponsor on Kevin Harvick's #29 Chevy since 2001.
The company was the primary sponsor on the Richard Childress Racing owned #21 Chevy, driven by former Cup champ Bobby Labonte, in the NASCAR Nationwide Series' Camping World 300 race at Daytona earlier this year.
Realtree has been a sponsor for Kerry Earnhardt, son of the late Dale Earnhardt, in a number of races.
And finally, Realtree is finishing production for the second season of its highly successful ESPN Outdoors' television show "Driven to Hunt" that will feature NASCAR drivers, owners, and other racing personalities later this fall.
"Our presence is well known," Jordan said.
That presence is certainly well known at the souvenir concession rigs where Realtree's camouflage racing apparel ranks very high on the list of trackside sales.
When I went by the Realtree camo rig on race day this past Sunday, there seemed to be as many — if not more — camo wearing fans doing their best to stimulate the economy with the contents of their wallets as there were fans at most other souvenir rigs.
"It is kind of like a fraternity, a club where people get to say 'Hey, I belong,'" Jordan said. "They can say 'I'm an outdoorsman' (and a racing fan) whether they've got an 88, a 29, a 24 or whatever number on top of their hat."
What I found most interesting as I walked through the crowded 'Dega stands and walkways was that there seemed to be as many women wearing camouflage as there were men.
"What's really been neat is that in all of the interest we've had, we've found that camo doesn't have to be worn just when you are hunting," Jordan said. "Now, it's kind of a fashion statement.
"And that's true not just for men and boys, but we're also finding that with women and kids (too)."
And camo isn't just cool for fans — it's also cool for the drivers and the owners themselves.
I found that out in the Realtree Suite this past Saturday when I shook hands with legendary NASCAR owner Richard Childress who was eager to talk about his success on a sheep hunt.
Childress is one of the key NASCAR personalities featured last fall on Realtree's highly successful "Driven to Hunt" television show on ESPN2 when he was shown on a Roosevelt elk hunt.
"We came up with the concept (for the show) and thought let's leverage our NASCAR relationship by inviting top name drivers, pit crew guys, team members, and owners to hunt with us as we film them trackside, then take the cameras into the woods to film their hunts," said Realtree's John Skrabo.
In the show's inaugural season, episodes featured a New Mexico elk hunt with NASCAR announcer Jeff Hammond; a spring turkey hunt with 11-time NASCAR winner Kevin Harvick; crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. on an Oklahoma whitetail hunt; and former driver Jeff Green on a Kentucky whitetail hunt.
"It accomplished everything we wanted to do," Jordan said. "Viewers get to see these guys in a whole different light — they get to see these guys kicked back and enjoying the outdoors just like they do.
"They enjoyed it, they like it, they endorse it, and they want to do it again."
Take Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 champion, for instance.
As a result of their business relationship and friendship, Jordan has helped to spawn a passion in Harvick for turkey hunting in the spring and big game hunting in the fall.
Just ask Harvick what his best memories are from '07.
You might be surprised.
"He'll tell anybody that when he shot his (first) elk, it was the most adrenaline filled moment in his life," Jordan said of the September 2007 elk hunt in Utah that he shared with Harvick.
Mind you, Harvick isn't the only NASCAR driver with a burgeoning passion for the outdoors.
"At Daytona (this year), none of these guys wanted to talk about racing — they all wanted to talk about hunting," Skrabo said.
"Driven to Hunt' is kind of the buzz of NASCAR right now," Skrabo added. "It's the longest season in sports, running February through November, and that's a brutal schedule and these guys are dying to do something else."
Especially when that "something else" actually involves donning Realtree camouflage, getting in the woods before the cameras, and hunting with Bill Jordan to chase spring turkeys, bull elk, and rutting whitetails.
While the fall 2008 episodes that will appear on ESPN2 haven't been completely finalized, Realtree production editors are working hard on footage that involve hunts with Jordan and such NASCAR names as Dale Earnhardt, Jr; Tony Stewart; Martin Truex; Clint Bowyer; Bobby Labonte; and Kevin Harvick to name a few.
On a NASCAR weekend that treated up to a quarter of a million trackside fans to thrilling racing at the tri-oval track with 33 degree banking; several big-time smash 'em up wrecks; Tony Stewart's first Talladega win on Saturday in the Nationwide Series; and Kyle Busch's first 'Dega victory in Sunday's Sprint Cup action, one thing seemed perfectly clear.
Camo is cool where NASCAR is king.
And you can take that fact all the way to Victory Lane — with a Team Realtree camouflage cap on, of course.
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