The road to the first-ever Air Jordan-themed NASCAR Cup Series car

An inside look at the design of the No. 45 car that Kurt Busch drove to victory for the 23XI Racing team

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Amid the celebratory chaos, between sprays of champagne and Monster Energy, Kurt Busch yelled from the stage of the winner’s circle: “Call him!”

The NASCAR driver wanted to speak to Michael Jordan, the man who commissioned him to pilot a car unlike anything the sport had ever seen.

His No. 45 Toyota Camry TRD featured a paint scheme inspired by the 1988 “Black Cement” Air Jordan 3. Behind the wheel of what looked like a sneaker on four Goodyear tires, Busch had just completed 267 laps around the 1.5-mile track at Kansas Speedway to finish the May 15 AdventHealth 400 in first place.

The win marked Busch’s first victory in his debut campaign for the 23XI (pronounced “twenty-three eleven”) Racing team, co-owned by Jordan and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin. It’s a fresh start for the veteran Busch, 43, that also landed him a partnership with Jordan Brand. As part of the deal, the multibillion-dollar subdivision of Nike signed on to be the primary sponsor of the No. 45 car for two races during the 2022 season, starting in Kansas, where Busch drove the first Air Jordan-themed car in NASCAR Cup Series history.

On the receiving end of Busch’s shout from the trophy presentation ceremony was Jordan Gregg, the day-to-day manager of the driver’s partnership with Jordan Brand. Gregg dialed MJ’s business partner and right-hand Curtis Polk, who answered and passed the phone to His Airness.

Surely, Jordan had already seen the shoutout the driver gave him as soon as he hopped out of the car, covered with the Air Jordan 3’s black-and-gray elephant print and adorned with seven red Jumpman symbols.

“With Jordan Brand on the hood, I felt like I had to play like the GOAT, race like the GOAT,” said Busch, in his matching elephant-print firesuit, during a postrace interview on the track. By the time of the speaker-phone call with the GOAT, he was even more excited.

“I f—ing got the job done! I was in your zone, bro!” Busch told Jordan.
“We had the inspiration to do something different,” Busch said. “Like a, ‘You only have one chance to make a first impression’ type feel.”

The design of the car had been months in the making. Yet the moment for the brand itself waited more than a decade to arrive.

“I think it’s a big deal for myself, and really for NASCAR,” said Hamlin in 2011 after becoming the first driver to join Jordan Brand.

Hamlin, who often recounts the origin story of their unlikely relationship, first met Jordan in 2010 at halftime of a Charlotte Bobcats game during the basketball legend’s first season as principal owner of the NBA franchise. Jordan told Hamlin he watched NASCAR every weekend. They exchanged numbers and texted the entire second half.  

“I grew up with NASCAR,” Jordan told Michael Strahan on Fox in 2021. “My father used to pack the whole family in. We’d go to Darlington, Rockingham, Charlotte. We went down to Daytona, Talladega. We would go and spend the whole day. And, from that point on, I’ve been hooked on NASCAR.”

The initial endorsement deal between Jordan Brand and Hamlin allowed for the Jumpman logo to appear on the back and shoulders of his firesuit, as well as on his belt and racing gloves. The brand eventually began designing exclusive Air Jordan racing shoes for the three-time Daytona 500 winner and future Hall of Fame driver. Yet, in Hamlin’s 11 years as a Jordan athlete, the brand has only invested in one of his associate partners. That means Hamlin has never driven in a NASCAR Cup Series race with the Jumpman logo on his hood.

Denny Hamlin during the Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200 at the Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia, on Oct. 26, 2013.
“Denny is jealous that I finally got to run the Jordan Brand scheme,” Busch said before the AdventHealth 400 in Kansas. “He was like, ‘Dude, I wanted the Jumpman on my car so bad for so long.’ I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time.”

(In 2013, Hamlin competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200 behind the wheel of an Air Jordan-themed Toyota Tundra. Hamlin had sent MJ a text hoping to secure a last-minute sponsorship for his No. 51 truck ahead of the race at Martinsville Speedway. Jordan Brand delivered a vibrant blue scheme, accented with elephant print that wrapped around the truck, and Hamlin finished in sixth place. Coincidentally, the winner that day was a then-20-year-old, up-and-coming African American driver named Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.)

In 2020, Hamlin and Jordan teamed up to form 23XI — named after MJ’s famed uniform number and the driver’s longtime car number. (The stylization of “XI” is also a nod to the Air Jordan 11, one of the most revered sneakers in Jumpman history.) With his investment, Jordan became the first Black principal owner of a full-time NASCAR Cup team since 1973. (From 2004 to 2014, he owned the Michael Jordan Motorsports Racing Team that competed in the American Motorcyclist Association Superbike racing series.)

Fittingly, 23XI launched with the signing of Wallace, the only Black full-time Cup Series driver, to a multiyear deal to pilot the No. 23 car in the team’s debut 2021 NASCAR season.

“Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin and 23XI Racing have embraced a lot of aspects of what the sport is hoping to be about,” said NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell. “Which is great racing, but also growing our brand as we look at, ‘How do we expand from a diversity and cultural standpoint?’ 23XI, and now the Jordan Brand, is helping us do just that.”

While he was the first driver of MJ’s racing team, Wallace is not a Jordan Brand athlete, due to a conflicting multiyear endorsement deal he signed with Columbia Sportswear before leaving Richard Petty Motorsports in late 2020. Following 23XI’s inaugural season, during which Wallace earned the team’s first-ever win at Talladega, Hamlin and Jordan sought to add a veteran driver to complement the organization’s emerging phenom.

In August 2021, Busch — the 2004 Cup Series champion and, like Hamlin, a future Hall of Famer — joined 23XI to drive the No. 45 car. It’s the same number MJ donned during a 13-month stint on minor league baseball diamonds following an abrupt retirement from the NBA in 1993. When Jordan returned to basketball in 1995, he wore No. 45 for 22 games with the Chicago Bulls. The signing of Busch to 23XI set the stage for the brand to get its chance at primary sponsorship of a Cup Series race.

“It was just about finding the right spot and the right attitude for when we wanted to launch the Jumpman scheme,” Busch said.

In December 2021, the brand’s sports marketing team held its first internal meeting to brainstorm plans for sponsoring Busch’s No. 45 car, with a target of two 2022 Cup Series race dates: May 15 at Kansas Speedway and Aug. 14 at Richmond Raceway. By February 2022, after 23XI officially announced Busch’s Jordan Brand partnership, they had the green light.

Serifcan Ozcan, in his sixth year working for Nike, oversees the Jordan Brand’s concepts team, which is responsible for all product graphics for sneakers, apparel and packaging, as well as athlete logos and brand storytelling initiatives. For Ozcan, who grew up in Turkey playing basketball and collecting car magazines, steering the strategy for the brand’s most-anticipated moment in racing became a passion project. He tapped Jordan Brand designer Brian Metcalf to help conceptualize an eye-catching wrap for Busch’s No. 45 car.

“We thought we can’t just simply put a logo on a car like all the other brands do,” Ozcan said. “We had a bigger opportunity here. The first thought was we have the most iconic shoes that represent peak performance and the GOAT. So, it was like, ‘Let’s design the car after a shoe.’ The next step was asking ourselves, ‘Well, what shoe would look good on a race car?’ ”

The two creatives prioritized two classic Air Jordan models that they wanted to bring to life on the canvas of Busch’s car for each race the brand would sponsor. The question then became, which design made more sense to roll out first?

“It was immediately clear, it’s gotta be the Air Jordan 3,” Ozcan said. “This was our first opportunity to put the Jumpman logo on a NASCAR, and the Air Jordan 3 was the first shoe to have the Jumpman on it.”

It’s hard to overstate the legacy of the AJ3 in the history of sneakers. Had it not been for the 3, there might not be a Jordan Brand — at least not at Nike. Heading into his third NBA season, a young MJ was on the brink of declining to renew his initial Nike contract, especially after the departure of the company’s marketing vice president Rob Strasser and Peter Moore, the creative director behind the pioneering Air Jordan 1. An emerging designer named Tinker Hatfield took over MJ’s signature line and asked the Bulls star what he wanted from his next sneaker. Hatfield delivered the AJ3, and alongside Nike co-founder Phil Knight, led a presentation of the shoe for MJ (who infamously showed up four hours late because he was golfing with Moore and Strasser, both of whom had joined Adidas). The Nike designer revealed the stylish mid-cut sneaker, crafted with full-grain leather and lined with a pattern that resembled cracked elephant skin.

The AJ3 most notably introduced the silhouette logo known as the Jumpman, depicting MJ stretching for a dunk. Impressed by the prototype, and the sportswear company’s commitment to his signature line, Jordan stuck with Nike and never looked back. The union of Jordan and Hatfield evolved into the greatest athlete-designer tandem sneaker culture has ever seen, beginning with their debut collaboration. MJ was named the 1988 NBA All-Star Game MVP with a 40-point performance that marked the first and only game he laced up the AJ3’s “Black Cement” colorway. Also, don’t forget: The AJ3 launched Nike’s timeless series of “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes” ads, featuring filmmaker Spike Lee as the character of Mars Blackmon.

“There was so much storytelling behind the Air Jordan 3 that made a lot of sense for the inspiration of Kurt’s car,” Metcalf said. “It was MJ’s first shoe by Tinker — basically Tinker’s first car with him. It was the first time the Jumpman was on the tongue of a shoe, and a tongue is kinda like the hood of a car. We also wanted something immediately recognizable on the track. And, graphically, that elephant print is amazing.”

It only took Ozcan and Metcalf a day to mock up digital renderings of the Air Jordan 3-themed car wrap. They also crafted the look of Busch’s matching elephant print firesuit and all the Jumpman-branded 23XI apparel for race day — collared shirts for engineers, uniforms, helmets and gloves for the pit crew and team hats.

In the months leading up to the AdventHealth 400, Busch ceded creative control to Jordan Brand. He specifically told his team he didn’t want to see the scheme until it was wrapped on his Toyota Camry TRD.

“My first reveal was at the race shop earlier this week,” Busch said in Kansas. “I walked in and was just taking it all in. I immediately asked, ‘Can we post this!?’ My team was like, ‘Hang on, we have an entire rollout planned.’ ”

According to O’Donnell, teams are required to submit paint schemes to NASCAR three to four weeks in advance of a race. But when a driver wants to make a big splash, NASCAR’s marketing team will keep the design close to the vest. Images of Busch’s Air Jordan-themed Toyota didn’t surface until three days before the race.

Once the Black Cement No. 45 car hit social media, it became an instant-classic NASCAR paint scheme and a top storyline in the sneaker world, picked up by platforms such as Sneaker News, Nice Kicks and Bleacher Report Kicks.

“As NASCAR has tried to become more a part of the broader professional sports landscape and dialogue, seeing that Jumpman logo on the car was tremendous,” O’Donnell said. “NASCAR has had ‘Petty Blue.’ We’ve had the iconic Earnhardt black paint scheme. Jeff Gordon broke through the mold with the rainbow scheme and ‘Rainbow Warriors.’ Now, this scheme stands out. It screamed the Jordan Brand.”

Less than 24 hours before the race, inside the 18-wheeler that transported the car from Mooresville, North Carolina, to Kansas Speedway, Busch lit up when he finally got to meet the men he called “the artists” behind the design.

“It’s beautiful,” Busch told Ozcan and Metcalf. “We really caught NASCAR by surprise.”

Jordan didn’t make the trip, but he reached out to his veteran driver ahead of the race.

“MJ is like any owner I’ve raced with before,” said Busch, who’s now on his fifth team. “But he’s also focused on style. So just to hear his attitude toward the car was great. At the same time, he was like, ‘Don’t focus too much on the scheme. The suit. The extra attention. Go do your thing.’ ”

In the 13 races this season before Kansas, Busch had led for only nine laps. That Sunday in Kansas, he led for 116, including the final nine that he finished to earn the 34th win of his career, which ranks 25th all time in NASCAR history.

Asked after the race why Busch was the first driver to represent the brand on his Cup Series car, Hamlin, the 23XI co-owner and fellow Jordan athlete, responded simply: “He wins. The fact is Kurt Busch wins.”
Bubba Wallace (left), driver of the No. 23 McDonald’s Toyota, congratulates Kurt Busch (right), driver of the No. 45 Jordan Brand Toyota, in the victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 15 in Kansas City, Kansas.

After Busch hoisted the AdventHealth 400 trophy, Wallace, who finished the race in 10th place, briefly joined his 23XI teammate during the celebration. The 28-year-old driver hopped onstage, with a pair of “Volt Gold” Air Jordan 1s on his feet, and wrapped Busch in a hug as they both took in the significance of the moment.

“I certainly can’t speak for the GOAT or the Jordan Brand, but I’d personally love to see Bubba in an Air Jordan-themed No. 23 car,” O’Donnell said. “Bubba is a huge star in our sport, and he’s got a really bright future. I’d love to see him and even more of our athletes join the brand.”

In the backdrop of the Black Cement-inspired No. 45 Toyota, covered in soot from the smoke of Busch’s victory doughnuts, one fan leaned over the railing of the winner’s circle as the ceremony drew to a close.

“I need a Jordan hat!” he shouted at every crew member within earshot. He even offered the vintage ’90s-era No. 3 Dale Earnhardt hat off his head in exchange for a black cap with the red Jumpman logo. He wanted to give his son a souvenir from the race in which Air Jordan made an imprint on NASCAR.
“You always hope the stars align,” O’Donnell said. “That a driver is able to take a unique paint scheme into victory lane. And this one was deserving, from a look and feel standpoint, while building off the momentum of what Michael has brought to the sport, what Denny’s done and what Kurt’s done.
“This truly felt like the beginning of something. Like, ‘Here’s the Jordan Brand in NASCAR.’ ”

Aaron Dodson