Busch brothers ready for uphill battle to clean up acts, reputation
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As soon as Kurt Busch finished his lunch in a busy media center last Thursday, he not only picked up his own trash, he offered to clean up everyone else’s mess.
The new and improved older of two racing brothers has vowed to have fun this year. He now seems committed to finding the best of each moment, whether it’s driving a race car or cleaning off a table.
“It’s all good,” he said with a smile.
Even after Kurt Busch crashed two cars while practicing and racing in the Bud Shootout exhibition race, he still smiled. The regular season is just days ahead and there’s more than 14,000 miles to be completed before the end of the season.
That’s a long time to hold a smile, an even longer time not to have another emotional meltdown.
And a long time to change people’s minds.
“By the end of the season people will see that I put fun back into racing,” he said. “It’s going to take time. It won’t happen overnight.”
There have been no such promises from his younger, and equally volatile, younger brother, Kyle Busch. He, too, is driven by a passion to win.
At the same time, he knows he has to find new ways to channel his frustration into more positive ways – a lesson learned the hard way when NASCAR parked him for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races last November at the Texas Motor Speedway for crashing another competitor during caution.
That transgression put a strain on his relationship with car owner Joe Gibbs and his sponsor, M&M’s. The candy company pulled its sponsorship of the team’s No. 18 Toyota for the final two races of the season. That forced Kyle Busch to spend some of his off-season mending fences – a making yet another promise to get better.
“There’s no one to blame but myself,” Kyle Busch said. “There’s an opportunity for me to become a better person, to grow and learn from this, and I’m looking forward to those days. I want to be with Joe Gibbs Racing. I want to be in NASCAR. I have a strong path ahead that I’m excited about and looking forward to.”
The Busch brothers clearly are alike. They are immensely talented and driven, and neither is willing to accept anything less than success.
The sport always has had its temperamental drivers. In fact, it’s part of NASCAR’s storied past. There have been bigger brats, tougher bullies and more outrageous punks in the past, but few have been able to stir such a contemptuous response from the fans and other drivers.
“People think we’re mad all the time,” Kurt Busch said. “We’re not mad at all. There are times when I think I should have been a driver back in the 80s. This happened all the time back then. The difference now is there are so many people watching now. Everybody sees everything.
“And in our case, some people watch us because they expect us to get in trouble. That’s all they watch for. They wait for something bad.”
Kurt Busch was fired at Roush Fenway Racing in 2005 after he was arrested for a traffic violation at Phoenix. He moved over to Penske Racing, but that ended abruptly after the season-finale in November at Homestead, Fla., when he made an obscene gesture toward his crew and he berated a television reporter.
Kurt Busch has embraced his new job with James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet. He now spends a lot of time in the shop working on the cars because there aren’t enough crewmen to get everything done. It’s been a cold slap of reality, but one he feels was necessary to find inner peace.
It wasn’t a step backward, he said. It’s simply a step in a new direction.
Kurt Busch now is getting help from a psychologist. He’s given tasks each week to help his find positive ways to deal with his frustration, including the recent list of the 10 most-hated athletes by Forbes. At No. 10, Kurt Busch is the only NASCAR driver to make the list.
Despite being lumped in the same category as Michael Vick, LeBron James and Terrell Owens as a bad boy, Kurt now shrugs his shoulders and smiles.
If there was a No. 11 on that list, it probably would have been Kyle.
Having coached NFL players for 22 years, Gibbs is used to erratic behavior. There is so much ability and promise being limited by his young driver’s emotions, so he’s dedicated himself to working with him.
“We’re all set to have a long future in racing,” Gibbs said. “I want to support Kyle and I feel like this could have a positive impact on Kyle. I’m committed to him as a person. I like him. We’ve gone through a lot together.”
Kyle Busch went a long way to winning back respect in the garage area with two incredible saves in the Shootout and a thrilling photo finish victory with Tony Stewart. Much of the deafening boos that came from the grandstands during pre-race driver introductions changed to a roar of approval as he took his customary bow at the flag stand.
It was a short-term moment that helped erase the memory of so much turmoil and anger. The key is making it more lasting.
In 2003 Kurt Busch waged a personal war with one of racing’s toughest drivers, Jimmy Spencer. It ended with Spencer punching him in the nose.
Last year car owner Richard Childress put Kyle Busch in a headlock and punched him after Busch bumped one of Childress’ trucks on the final lap of a race.
NASCAR president Mike Helton has issued a lot of fines, and both have spent a significant part of their careers on probation. At the same time, Helton said they are good for NASCAR.
In racing, bad publicity sells as many tickets as good publicity. Like them or not, they demand attention when they’re on the race track.
The brothers will share the driving duties in Kyle Busch’s Nationwide Series team this year. It’s an effort that’s certain to garner a lot of attention.
According to Joyce Julius and Associates, a company which computes television exposure and its value for sponsors, Kyle Busch led NASCAR by getting $68 million worth of visibility for M&M’s and Interstate Batteries. He also was the most interviewed driver, Joyce Julius reported.
No matter how much trouble they find, neither has blamed others. They generally accept their roles in every controversy and they usually promise to learn from their mistakes.
“What does make me mad is they’ve drug our parents into this,” Kurt Busch said. “The media has blamed them. Believe me, it’s not their fault.”
Kurt Busch’s biggest threat now is to be relevant. Phoenix Racing didn’t have a single top-10 finish last year.
“I’ve always been guilty of doing things the hard way, and working hard instead of smart, I guess is my mentality,” Kurt Busch said. “And these guys, the way that we’re understaffed, but yet they have such a big heart, they're just like me.
“So getting back to old school racing, having fun with it, the pressure is not there. But when we go week to week and go to Phoenix, Vegas, into Bristol we'll start to learn more about the cars, where we stack up. It’s not going to take winning to make me happy.”
The real challenge is to find what will make both brothers happy.
“If I’m going to sit there and tell stories to my grandchildren, this is not what I wanted to tell them,” Kurt Busch said. “So in looking at the big picture, I’ve got to understand what it takes to be a competitive driver and to harness that fire in my belly.”
One smile at a time.
Aug. 4, 2002 – Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer tangle for the third time in 10 months, ending with Busch’s car being wrecked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To show his displeasure, Busch ran onto track and grabbed his buttocks as Spencer passed a lap later.
Aug. 18, 2004 – Kurt Busch tells his team on the radio he wants to hit Spencer’s car. After the race, Busch blocked the back of Spencer’s hauler and Spencer responded by punching him in the face. Spencer is fined $25,000 and suspended from racing a week later at Bristol, Tenn.
Nov. 11, 2005 – Kurt Busch is fined $580 and ordered to 50 hours of community service after being arrested for reckless driving and speeding near the Phoenix International Speedway.
Nov. 12, 2005 – Kurt Busch, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion, is fired by car owner Jack Roush with two races remaining in season.
May 23, 2006 – Kyle Busch is fined $150 for improper driving in Richmond, Va., for “chirping” his tires.
May 31, 2006 – Kyle Busch runs into Casey Mears during a caution and later he throws something at Mears’ car during the race. He is fined $50,000 and placed on probation.
March 25, 2007 – Kyle Busch wins first race for the new Car of Tomorrow at the Bristol Motor Speedway. In Victory Lane, however, he said he hated the car.
April 16, 2007 – Kyle Busch leaves the Texas Motor Speedway following a crash. His team makes repairs and is forced to ask Dale Earnhardt Jr. to finish the race.
June 4, 2007 – Kurt Busch runs into Tony Stewart on pit road at the Dover International Speedway. He is fined $100,000 and placed on probation.
June, 2007 – To make room for Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch learns car owner Rick Hendrick doesn’t want him back in 2008. Busch eventually signs with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Feb. 9, 2008 – Kurt Busch is placed on probation after he and Tony Stewart ran into each other during practice for the Bud Shootout. Stewart reportedly threw a punch at Busch inside the NASCAR hauler after the practice session.
Nov. 7, 2010 – Kyle Busch parked for two laps and fined $25,000 for making obscene gesture toward a NASCAR official at the Texas Motor Speedway.
May 9, 2011 – Kyle Busch runs into Kevin Harvick’s car on pit road after the race at the Darlington Raceway. Harvick responded by trying to punch Busch. Both drivers are fined $25,000.
May 24, 2011 – Kyle Busch is ticketed for driving 128 mph near a residential area in Iredell County, N.C.
June 4, 2011 – Car owner Richard Childress is fined $150,000 after he put Kyle Busch in a headlock and punched him at the Kansas Speedway. Childress was upset that Busch ran into one of his trucks at the end of the race.
Nov. 4, 2011 – Kyle Busch parked for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at the Texas Motor Speedway after intentionally crashing Ron Hornaday Jr. during a caution in the truck series race. NASCAR also fined him $50,000.
Nov. 20, 2011 – Kurt Busch loses a transmission early in the race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the garage, he makes an obscene gesture toward his Penske Racing teammates and he berates ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch. Days later, he agrees to leave Penske. NASCAR fines him $50,000.