When 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kurt Busch joined 23XI Racing for the 2022 season, he was announced as only the second driver to be part of the elite Jordan Brand family. Jordan Brand, if you’re unfamiliar, is the billion-dollar Nike-backed sneaker-and-apparel empire of basketball deity Michael Jordan. Ahead of this weekend’s Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway, the company revealed a special livery for Busch’s 2022 Toyota Camry race car: Say hello to the elephant-print pattern as found on the famous Air Jordan III, Jordan’s signature shoe released originally in 1988 and still coveted by sneakerheads today every time the brand introduces a “retro” release (re-issue) of the model into the marketplace. Despite the elephant pattern being 34 years old, it remains as fresh as ever, even on the mundane Camry.
Why Elephant Print?
What makes this print so iconic in the first place? By the time it was first introduced, NBA superstar Jordan and Nike’s Air Jordan line were well established but still in their early days. The Air Jordan I had looked much like many other hoops shoes, and the Air Jordan II was a somewhat strange model most famous for being the one Jordan broke his foot in during his second season in the league. Sales of the line were strong thanks to Jordan’s amazing play, but the shoe designs themselves had yet to really make people stand up and say, “Wow!” But 1988 changed all that when Nike introduced the Air Jordan III, which was helped immediately image-wise when Jordan wore it to win the NBA All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest at his home-court Chicago Stadium. There are few stick-and-ball sports fans who aren’t familiar with the photograph of Jordan flying through the air from the free-throw line, white/cement gray Air Jordan IIIs on his feet as he soared to the contest win over Dominique Wilkins. Notable: The Air Jordan III marked the first appearance of the now world-famous Jumpman logo, and it was the first Jordan shoe to feature Nike’s visible “Air” cushioning technology. Also, and unconventionally for the era, it was constructed in mid-top form rather than the standard high-top designs of the day.
It was also the first Air Jordan design by Tinker Hatfield, who would go on to design Air Jordans all the way through to the 15, as well as the 20, 23, Air Jordan 2010, and XXX. The former Nike architect was a late replacement for Air Jordan I designer Peter Moore and his Air Jordan II collaborator Bruce Kilgore, who had left the company. Moore, who bolted to Adidas, was attempting to get Jordan to ditch Nike and come along, and he may have worked had Hatfield not listened closely to Jordan’s input during previous conversations. In those discussions, Jordan mentioned he wanted a shoe with soft leather that didn’t take long to break-in on the court (something he disliked about the Air Jordan II), as well as a lower cut and some stylistic flair.
That’s why the Air Jordan III would be a mid-top, as it provided security but also allowed for additional comfort and flexibility so Jordan could move like a cat around the court and fly through the air unlike any other player. As for the elephant print? It gave Jordan the high-end, designer-apparel look he craved, and it stood out like nothing else seen on the court or store shelves. As Hatfield has recalled on numerous occasions, a surly Jordan–apparently on the verge of leaving Nike–arrived hours late to a meeting to see the shoe for the first time. He was disinterested at first, but as soon as Hatfield pulled off the wraps, the player’s entire demeanor changed. The shoe was certainly nothing like anything Nike or anyone else had ever produced; years later, Nike co-founder Phil Knight credited Hatfield and the Air Jordan III for keeping Jordan onboard and saving the company. Since then, the elephant print has become a Jordan Brand staple, which is why you see it featured on its most important products and athletes, such as Busch and his Toyota Camry Cup car.
Jordan Brand and Kurt Busch
You might think this is a strange pairing, but Busch is an avid basketball fan, and North Carolina native Jordan is a longtime motorsports fan. He’s known to favor fast cars and motorcycles, and he owned an AMA Superbike team in 2004. But he always wanted a NASCAR team under his brand, and the dream finally became reality with the 2021 formation of 23XI racing along with NASCAR driver and three- time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin. When Busch lost his ride after his Chip Ganassi Racing team was sold to Trackhouse Racing, the perfect opportunity opened for the basketball legend to hire a NASCAR veteran and champion for his newly formed racing operation. Busch joined with the number 45, a number Jordan infamously wore briefly for the Chicago Bulls when he came out of retirement for the first time, in 1995. Busch also became only the second NASCAR driver to wear the iconic Jumpman on his uniform, a dream for any basketball fan.
The Air Jordan Camry
While the original Air Jordan III only featured the cement-colored elephant print on its toe cap and heel, the Kurt Busch No. 45 Camry wears it efficiently along its sides, greenhouse, and nose. The hood is all cement color with a red Jumpman logo, while the rest of the car is black, the signature color of Busch’s Monster Energy sponsorship. However, the black is done in a shape reminiscent of a sneaker, with the roof all black and the lower nose, front wheel arch, and rocker panel in solid black. There are five red circles just below the front turn-signal portion of the headlight decal, meant to replicate where the lower “laces” would be. From just past the driver’s door window, the black curves up and just over the rear quarter panel before descending back down toward the rear bumper, just like a primary color on a basketball shoe.
The entire tail panel is black with a pair of red Jumpman logos, one under the driver’s side taillight decal and the other under the Toyota emblem and “Camry” decals. The only thing that truly breaks up the shoe look is the required racing number on the sides of the car, as the side logos are only on the black portion and there are only four of them: McDonalds, Monster Energy, 7-11, and JordanBrand.
The Camry won’t be the only Jordan Brand-designed item seen at the racetrack when Busch drives it at Kansas Motor Speedway: The teams’ shoes and uniforms will all be special, as well. It’s a unique look that will likely go down in NASCAR livery history, right up there with the Peter Max-inspired design that Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove in 2000. However, it potentially won’t be quite as polarizing as the rainbow-themed race for that was the antithesis of the “Man in Black.” We just hope that if Busch manages to win, he looks into the camera and delivers the phrase that always makes sneaker aficionados smile: “It’s gotta be the shoes!”
Images provided by Nike. Additional images from Getty and MotorTrend Staff.