ENUMCLAW, 10:38 a.m. — In a helicopter floating above his homeland, Kasey Kahne looks down with infant enthusiasm. He reaches into a...
ENUMCLAW, 10:38 a.m. — In a helicopter floating above his homeland, Kasey Kahne looks down with infant enthusiasm. He reaches into a Taco Time bag and uses his Tex-Mex as a pointer. Look, he motions. Look right there.
“That’s where I used to live,” the acclaimed NASCAR driver says.
The grass looks like a green sponge, the cows like blotches of ink and whiteout, but Kahne knows home. He cherishes home. His busy day will soon resemble the whir of those chopper blades helping to transport him, and yet Kahne remains the same: gracious, mellow, nostalgic.
He’s so, well, normal. He eats his tacos one bite at a time. The hottest young star in his sport just has to chew quicker because the day will be hectic.
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In a little less than four hours, Kahne flies from Enumclaw to Fort Lewis to Puyallup and back. He visits with soldiers, conducts a press gathering, poses for 276 pictures, speaks to customers and retailers of Budweiser (his new sponsor), signs autographs and poses for more pictures.
Four hours, three events, two counties — and a really cool mode of transportation. Forget about learning how Kasey Kahne rolls. He’s on too much of a high right now.
This is how he soars.
FORT LEWIS, 10:59 a.m. — Earlier, Kahne was angry. He spoke to his father, Kelly, upon boarding the helicopter and shook his head in disgust. “The clutch,” he told his dad.
On Sunday, Kahne couldn’t capitalize on winning the pole in the Toyota/SaveMart 350 in Sonoma, Calif. He had problems with his clutch. His car became extremely loose. He fell to 33rd, a disappointing finish for a man who had won three of his previous five races. Frustrated, he boarded his private plane and landed in Enumclaw at 8:30 Sunday night.
But his mood changes after landing at the army base. The first soldier he meets has four Purple Hearts. Four! Kahne is amazed. Then he has the opportunity to visit some soldiers who were injured in Iraq. Soon, all the irritation over losing vanished.
“The injured soldiers, they have such good attitudes,” Kahne says. “I’m fortunate to do what I do.”
He’s so, well, genuine. Most celebrities say similar things after making appearances, but there’s something different about Kahne. The way he shakes his head as he talks, the solemn look on his face — that can’t be faked. He’s not the gabby kind. Sometimes, he struggles to find the right words. It only makes his sincerity more detectable.
Later, while spending an hour posing for pictures at the Fort Lewis PX, a woman exclaims, “He’s so much cuter in person!” It’s one of two inevitable comments wherever Kahne goes. The other: He’s smaller than I expected.
Kahne is 5 feet 8, 150 pounds with stunning blue eyes. The ladies adore him, same as they love Dale Earnhardt Jr. How appropriate it is that he has replaced Dale Jr. as the Bud Man.
“He had big shoes to fill,” said Tim Schoen, the Anheuser-Busch vice president of sports and entertainment marketing. “Dale Jr. is the most popular driver in NASCAR. But Kasey is very talented, a handsome guy, a proven winner. All that led to selecting him as the new Bud Man. We’re looking pretty smart right now.”
PUYALLUP, 1:03 p.m. — During a question-and-answer session with Budweiser retailers and customers, Kahne turns poetic when discussing success.
“The morning after you win, when you wake up and try to remember what you did yesterday and it pops that you won a race, that’s a great morning,” Kahne tells the crowd. “By that afternoon, you still try to enjoy it, but you’re already getting ready for the next race. It’s weird how quickly you forget that you won. I hold onto losses a lot longer than wins.”
When asked later about those remarks, he sighs. “Days like yesterday,” he says, referring again to Sunday’s disappointment. “Just how quickly you can be the fastest one day and the slowest the next — it keeps you grounded.”
Ray Evernham, who heads Kahne’s racing team, says the 28-year-old has the talent to be a champion. Kahne is ninth in the Sprint Cup standings. If Kahne is right, if his No. 9 Dodge car is right, he could challenge for the championship this season. He needs to finish in the top 12 to be included in the 10-race Chase for the Championship. This could be his year to win it all. And if not, he’s expected to in the future. Evernham, co-owner of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, sees Kahne as a transcendent NASCAR star in the future.
“He’s got the name. He’s got the looks. But he can get the job done, too,” Evernham says.
ENUMCLAW, 2:11 p.m. — Exiting the helicopter the third and final time, Kahne seems unfazed by his whirlwind day. He thanks his pilot. He seems energized, not tired.
He’s home until Wednesday, when he flies to Tennessee for two appearances. Then he’ll return to Charlotte, N.C., his current residence, before heading to Loudon, N.H., for this week’s race.
“I’m not really that busy this week,” he says, smiling. “I’m just doing things a little differently.”
He can only manage about three visits home every year, so this is special. He gets quality time with his mother, Tammy. He gets to visit old buddies, maybe have a few beers — Budweiser, of course. Kahne keeps listing the possibilities when he gazes upon the most beautiful sight: the helicopter takes off and flies over Mount Rainier.
“That was pretty cool,” Kahne exclaims. “He just took off right over that thing.”
He keeps looking, replaying what he just saw. Finally, his life is on pause. As he looks into the sky, the rising star ends the afternoon with one all-encompassing word: “Wow.”