Walking slowly across the lobby of Caesars Palace, dejected at the tail end of a three-hour Las Vegas scavenger hunt, the Inglorious Budsters thought they'd arrived just a little too late.
Nearing the finish line for the Gauntlet—the biggest and penultimate challenge in a competition that stretched across months—the Budsters figured a couple of mistakes had cost them their chance at glory.
But as they stepped off of the elevator and opened the door to the Caesars' "Rain Man" suite, the Budsters received a roomful of applause. They'd finished first, and were one step away from being crowned America's best party crew.
"When we left the karaoke bar, we actually got a little glum for the first time in this whole five-month adventure," said Josh Skibar. "We were kind of defeated, so we braced ourselves—and then opened the door to a bunch of applause. I went from being bummed out to being completely ecstatic in that moment."
One of 3,300 teams to begin the Band of Buds competition, Tucson's Inglorious Budsters were among the 25 finalist teams who made the cut for a Las Vegas party weekend. With one day remaining, they stood with teams from New York, Boston and Miami in the championship round.
The Budsters' status as "sun-soaked outlaws" with "enough ink between them to print two copies of Holy Scripture" marked them as the contest's rowdy bunch. With wild hair and beards—and 60 tattoos between them—the Budsters combined outsized charisma with an eagerness to befriend every competitor, a formula that took shape when they joined the contest, on a lark, in June 2010.
Skibar and James Muñoz, members of heavy metal band The Bled, were on tour in Austin, Texas, when they heard about Budweiser's contest to find the best crew in the country—the official Band of Buds, who'd walk away with $100,000 and a photo spread in Rolling Stone.
The goal of the Band of Buds promotion was to "find a group of friends who shared the core essence of Budweiser, to find people who shared the same passion of sitting down and sharing a Budweiser with friends," said Bob Fishbeck, a senior program manager for Budweiser.
No teams from Tucson had signed up, so Skibar and Muñoz called friends Jericho Davidson and Garth Bryson, and adopted the name Inglorious Budsters. They did the required photo shoots—the Budsters with their favorite bartender (Donovan White of Che's Lounge), the Budsters playing their favorite sport (foosball), the Budsters re-creating a favorite album cover (Queen II).
They then started climbing the online-voting leader board.
In a week, the Budsters rose from 200th to the top four, and eventually stayed in the top slot for months. The best 12 teams in each of 25 markets were invited to compete in their local casting calls for a chance at the ultimate prize in Las Vegas.
"The Budsters were great from start to finish. As soon as we saw them in Phoenix, we knew they would be there at the end. They definitely are eccentric, but that's part of what makes them endearing," Fishbeck said. "Those guys are great friends; they know a ton about each other, and they love to have a Budweiser and have some fun."
When the Sept. 23 casting call in Phoenix arrived, there was a problem: The Bled had a show booked in Bakersfield, Calif., on the same day. With the reluctant support of their bandmates, Skibar and Muñoz called off the show, forgoing a $500 guarantee. Davidson and Bryson drove nine hours to pick them up, and the whole crew crashed in Palm Springs with a friend named Drunk Lando before continuing to Phoenix.
"When we got to the casting-call party, everyone knew who we were, all the Budweiser reps and all the other crews," said Skibar, 30. "There was so much pressure there, because we had been in first for so long, and we had to cancel a show. But the Phoenix thing was a slaughter."
The Inglorious Budsters faced off against mostly frat-guy types in Budweiser-lubricated challenges that previewed the Las Vegas competition: a red carpet walk, a round of the video game Rock Band (featuring Steve Miller's "Rock 'n Me"), and the Bud Wise game—a Newlywed Game-styled Q&A session. (Q: "Who would play Skibar in a movie?" A: "Tom Hanks in Cast Away.")
The Budsters won a trophy as Band of Buds Arizona Champions. But Las Vegas was still months away, and having already earned a berth in the finals, the Budsters were locked out of online voting.
To keep the hype building, they turned on their outlandish creativity and made some online videos, including a "training" montage and an original song, written and recorded in three hours.
"We had no real gear, no budget, just an old digital camera from 2006, and a few friends who were willing to film us goofing off for a few hours at a time," said Muñoz, 28.
In doing so, they branded themselves as not only party animals, but as full-on comedians, boosting their profile among competitors and the contest sponsors. Some videos received thousands of views.
"When we got to Vegas, finally, (the Budweiser staff) would say, 'We're your biggest fans,' because it was their job to watch what everybody was doing. Some dudes even knew the lyrics to our song," said Davidson, 31.
Hungover from the send-off party at Che's Lounge the night before, the Budsters' reception on Dec. 15 at Las Vegas' McCarran Airport was a bucket of longnecks and a limousine ride (with more Budweiser, of course) to the Mirage.
It was the rock-star treatment from the get-go.
After checking in, they hit the meet-and-greet with the 96 other people who were competing. Expecting some animosity between groups, the Budsters agreed on a "no haters" policy and set out to befriend every other crew.
"It was just a fun, silly thing. We're not going to go and talk shit, with our dicks swinging in the wind. We were there to have fun and make friends," Davidson said.
Or, in Muñoz's words: "We tried to invite everyone to take part in our tornado of awesomeness."
The idea worked.
"The coolest thing about this challenge for me—besides thousands of people telling you that you're hilarious and giving you money—was that there were these groups of people who were the total opposite of me in every way, and we all got along so well," Davidson said. "If it wasn't for this silly Budweiser competition, we never would've in a million years have had any contact, but we all had such a good time."
From gun-toting military rednecks (Ohio's Chillbillies) to Southern sorority girls (Atlanta's Klassy Krew) to sports-crazed Texans (the University of Texas alumni Hornsmen), the Budsters made new friends across the spectrum.
"They're the poster child for the competition," said Wallace Lytle, a 24-year-old Marine from Ohio. "It's the competition to find the best group of friends and partiers in the country. Those guys represent every aspect of that, and they definitely partied the hardest. They could basically entertain themselves with a ball and a stick, so long as they had some beers."
Lytle first heard of the competition when he was on a training mission in Africa, and he put the Chillbillies together when he returned home, using the Budsters as a reference for grabbing attention. A self-described 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound ginger, Lytle earned the Budsters' respect as the unofficial MVP of the entire competition.
"Those guys were ready to come in and make friends with everybody else, and they really rocked out this competition. They took every situation and made it golden," Lytle said of the Budsters. "The dirtiest-looking guys, the most haggard-looking guys—they're usually the best guys."
Estimates vary quite a bit between the individual Budsters, but it's safe to say they each finished somewhere between 20 and 50 beers during every day of the Vegas competition, drinking constantly from breakfast on.
"It was impossible to not have a Budweiser in your hand at all times—label out," said Bryson, 28.
Davidson said the Budweiser staff told them they actually ran out of beer midway through the competition. They'd allotted four beers, per person, per hour.
Budweiser officials were nervous about disclosing a precise quantity of beer consumed. "We definitely did go through our fair share of Budweiser. But it was in a contained environment," Fishbeck said.
There was an optional breakfast every day at the competition, and the Budsters made a rule: No matter how tired or hungover they were, they would be there, right at the start, wearing bathrobes. There was also a self-imposed no-whiskey rule (eventually amended to just no whiskey for breakfast).
After the opening-night mixer, the challenges began. First, a casino night. Then more mock red-carpet treatment, with fake fans and paparazzi. The Budsters hammed it up, kissing girls on the cheek and signing autographs.
"This is entirely bigger than just a drinking contest," Skibar said. "It was a lot of drinking and a lot of shenanigans, but Vegas wasn't just a walk in the park. We had to work to win it."
On the third night came the Beer Olympics, with games like cup-stacking, a ring toss and a relay race to pour and serve beer. The Budsters won the Beer Olympics and earned an extra $600; they promptly spent half of that on a sushi dinner.
"We just threw the card down on the table and said, 'We want one of every roll,'" Skibar said.
Then came the Gauntlet, which winnowed the field from 25 to six. Essentially an advanced scavenger hunt, the challenge involved figuring out clues and decoding messages to complete an absurd list of tasks.
Accompanied by a driver, a producer, a handler, a camera man and a sound operator, the Budsters had to arm-wrestle a luchador, play catch with a dolphin, get into a VIP club, save a wedding, sing karaoke and race to the finish line.
But they read too much into one clue and found themselves running up a flight of stairs—only to find a locked back door at a 64th-floor club at Mandalay Bay. By the time they retraced their steps to the front lobby and found the right way in, the Budsters had lost valuable time. They were third in line to sing at the karaoke bar—which didn't go so well, either.
"I had to pee so bad, and while I was in the bathroom, Jericho and James picked the wrong song. James didn't know the lyrics, and I'd lost my voice from yelling," Skibar explained. "We're butchering Frank Sinatra's 'The Lady Is a Tramp,' so Jericho saved it all by picking girls out of the crowd and bringing them up to dance."
Reading between the lines to figure out what Budweiser was looking for—and being willing to let some ridiculousness define the proceedings—served the Budsters well. "As a general rule of thumb, if we're going to screw up, we're going to have to be funny about it and do it gracefully," Bryson said.
Thinking they'd lost the big challenge, the Budsters asked their handler how bad their finish was going to be. The coy answer: They weren't in last place.
"At this point, we're feeling kind of defeated, so we're strolling and just leisurely walking into the casino. Part of the advantage was that we thought we weren't going to win. The other crew got hassled by security, because they were running, so security actually stopped them," Bryson said.
In the suite, SIRIUS XM radio hosts and competition emcees Covino and Rich announced the Budsters had won the Gauntlet, and awarded them matching Band of Buds rings.
The final six teams earned a spa treatment to start the competition's final day. Each member got to pick two items—except for Skibar, who was told his long blond hair was getting the super-sleek deep condition and flatiron treatment. Davidson got a pedicure, and since he'd already shaved his back before leaving for Vegas, he asked for a Brazilian wax.
The salon's aesthetician looked frightened and turned down the request.
The grand finale—the Million Dollar Party, as Budweiser called it—featured another Bud Wise Q&A. One by one, each member of the last four crews was separated from the others and taken to a podium out front.
The Budsters quickly distinguished themselves from the other finalists.
The judges asked, "What is your Bud's best physical attribute?" The other three teams replied face, but the Budsters were spot-on in knowing that Davidson would say his balls.
"There were more than 3,000 groups of four to start with, and it was the exact moment of that question that I realized how much we stood apart from every other team in the competition," Davidson said.
Next up: "What is your Bud's worst habit?" A couple other teams answered, "nose-picking." Davidson replied: "Constantly jerking it." Right again.
Muñoz was the last one to sit down at the podium, and Budsters had knocked out three correct answers in a row, taking a lead.
"What is the worst lie your Bud has ever told to get laid?" Muñoz replied, "That I was a gay rock star." Close enough.
"What is your Bud's most embarrassing possession?" Muñoz replied, "Nintendo Power Glove." Bingo.
"One of the things that was most impressive was a lot of the questions could have any answer, and some people were pretty vague," Fishbeck said. "The Budsters were very well-versed in knowing each other. We were a little shocked with some of the answers they got right, but it proved to us that these guys were the top Band of Buds crew, and they exemplified the camaraderie we look for."
The Budsters impressed more than just the Budweiser staff. The celebrity judges (actor Jonathan Silverman, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan, and models Layla Kayleigh and Sara Hoots) and the other crews hollered along as the outcome became clear.
"Before they even announced the winner, the crowd was chanting our name," Skibar said. "There wasn't a frown in the entire place. Everyone wanted us to win."
About a dozen friends came from Tucson for the competition and after-party. Proper Vegas entertainment came from The Dan Band, of The Hangover and Old School fame, who inserted "Inglorious" lyrics into the songs.
The Budsters were moved that night into the penthouse suite at the Mirage.
Their recollections grow patchy from there.
"My crew flew back to Atlanta, and I changed my flight to stay around and party with the Budsters. That's how much I love them," said Felicia Ruiz, who turned 26 during the competition and was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by the Budsters. "They were the most clever and the most entertaining. I'm totally happy they won it."
The next morning, Budweiser threw the champions right into a lengthy photo shoot with Rolling Stone. The Budsters said the art director told them it was one of his favorite shoots ever.
"We're four musicians, for our entire lives, and what gets us into Rolling Stone is drinking and making jokes," Bryson said. "But it's proven that just us—hanging out and doing what we do—can be really successful."
Fueling the Budsters is no small amount of hometown pride, a feeling shared by the crew's countless friends, who are proud of the little city's big win. The Budsters even had a welcome-home committee at the airport (which, in the interest of full disclosure, included me).
"We're so beat up, so exhausted, and we're coming down the escalator, and 20 of our favorite Tucsonans are at the bottom, cheering us, holding signs and singing our Inglorious song," Skibar said. "Everyone is proud of us. It's just a huge victory for the town in general. Tucson has made us feel like celebrities.
"I've gotten even better at high-fiving."
The Budsters are still subject to background checks before receiving their winnings. But, fittingly, "The only thing they'd find is when three of us got arrested, together, for drinking in public," Davidson said.
The big exposure is still on the way. The Budsters' photo spread in Rolling Stone is scheduled for the March 3 issue (on newsstands Feb. 18). And the copious video that Budweiser shot in Vegas will be edited into a series of webisodes posted at BandofBuds.com.
The Budsters will join the brewer's famous Clydesdales on a Fourth Avenue beer delivery tonight, Thursday, Feb. 10, from 6 to 8 p.m., said Michelle Garcia-Estrada, spokeswoman for the local Golden Eagle Distributors Inc.
The Band of Buds contest will be back next year, bigger and better, Fishbeck said, and the Inglorious Budsters will certainly be a part of it. And—no surprise—they don't mind at all.
"If I ever went back to Vegas without Budweiser's money, I'd be so fucking bored. They had limos for us. Every moment, there was something to do. And we had endless free beer," Skibar said.
The Budsters told themselves that if they won, they'd cut a whole album. Besides their theme, tunes already in the works include a rap, a duet between Muñoz and his penis (as voiced by Bryson) and a self-mocking jingle. ("Three cool guys, with really cool beards ... and Garth.")
It's all a celebration of not only the win, but the Budsters' well-earned status.
"We're actually professionals. We're sponsored now," Davidson said. "We're America's greatest party crew—but we could take on anyone in the world."