Kurt Smith · Friday June 4, 2010
Have you ever seen a commercial where a brand of detergent or something of that nature pronounces itself “new and improved?” This sort of advertising was far more common when I was a lad, as opposed to today where every corporation tries to show how hip they are with their humorous ad campaigns.
At any rate, the word “new” is sometimes used to describe a person who has reportedly changed his ways almost as often as it is applied to a beverage. And the label can be easily dismissed as a false premise with racecar drivers as much as it can be dismissed as a marketing tool.
Following Kyle Busch’s Coca-Cola 600 spat, with Jeff Burton of all people, our own Tom Bowles, selling his own website out writing for Sports Illustrated, praised Shrub for his keeping his cool as Burton spewed unseemly rage at him. Tom said, quote, “He may earn himself a Sprint Cup title yet, as long as “old Kyle” stays trapped in the closet for good.”
Tom’s a good guy and a good boss, and I will readily admit that he is more of an insider than I. But I doubt there is an “old” Kyle or “new” Kyle. After five seasons in Sprint Cup, following every race where Kyle Busch is the story, there are musings about how this is the new “mature Kyle” or that it’s the old “petulant Kyle” that has surfaced this week. Actually, this has been going on for about a year.
Kyle Busch is an enormously gifted racecar driver and a fiercely driven competitor who would rather eat a tire than lose. He is an emotional and still young man who is performing in the most visible form of motorsports in America. He puts enormous pressure on himself—and his crew—to accept nothing less than a trip to victory lane, and occasionally gets publicly angry when things do not go his way. Sometimes he handles himself very well, other times not so well.
None of that is “old” or “new” about him.
I remember similar frequent commentary about another driver, a fellow by the name of Tony Stewart. Stewart too was plenty brash and temperamental, and on occasion would get under the skin of more than a few fans with his road rage. But many years after the motorsports press was calling him a kinder and gentler Tony, he would openly fume about other drivers not moving over for him (remember Billy Bad Butt?), and still didn’t back away from embarrassing a reporter who asked a question he didn’t like.
After years of familiarity with him the press’s stance toward Smoke has softened a bit. Stewart does deserve great credit for using his fame and money to help those less fortunate. He and Jeff Gordon are tops in that regard. It can’t be easy to organize the Prelude to the Dream, persuading the sport’s biggest stars to find time in their schedules to race on a dirt track in Ohio. Tony could be like every other driver, make spotty appearances for his Foundation to improve his image, and there certainly wouldn’t be anything wrong with that. What he does do is often above and beyond.
But the notion that Stewart is a changed man after so many years in NASCAR is a myth. Tony’s always had a temper, he just has championships and more fans now. If Tony is new and improved today, it may be because as an owner he is more cognizant of how sponsors look at a driver’s behavior. Whatever the reason, he has changed and become more palatable—or unpalatable, depending on your worldview.
Similarly, in a few races this season, broadcasters in the booth made a point to trumpet Kyle Busch’s handling of adversity early in a race, and how the “old” Kyle Busch would not have approached the situation so professionally. Really? Everything went perfectly and smoothly throughout all 16 wins before this season? He won 62 top series races in five years by exploding at his crew when things went wrong? Sounds to me like whatever he had been doing was working fairly well.
After the All-Star race where Kyle threatened to murder Denny Hamlin for racing him hard, we can probably put the whole idea of a “new” Kyle Busch to bed. Hamlin would clearly agree, given his comments to the media afterward. His star teammate laughed at the idea that there is a “new” Kyle Busch, and he would probably know better than most of us.
Why do folks seem so eager to see a better behaved Kyle Busch anyway? Reporters and commentators may self-righteously condemn his behavior, and sometimes it is warranted. Shouting “you guys suck” at one’s crew over the radio isn’t going to endear a young millionaire to underpaid and under-appreciated working class folk. He occasionally does regrettable things, because like all of us, the man is flawed.
But the world of NASCAR fans and reporters sure can’t bring themselves to ignore the guy. Like Dale Earnhardt told Jeff Gordon, it doesn’t matter if they’re booing, as long as they’re making noise.
And Kyle Busch can drive the hell out of a racecar. There isn’t anything new about that either.
Whatever his handling of any incident that happens on a racetrack, it will be designated as his “new” or “old” behavior, depending on how much maturity he demonstrates. But maybe it’s just of case of people needing to get to know him better, just as people eventually did with Stewart when he made appearances for sick kids. Someday another cocky hotshot will come along, and we’ll be frowning on the lack of respect he shows established veterans like Kyle Busch.
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