Thomas Bowles · Monday November 14, 2005
Ever see the movie Good Will Hunting? It came out a few years ago, and starred Matt Damon as a smart, talented young kid working as the Harvard University janitor because circumstances and personality kept him from pursuing the college degree he could have easily attained.
Certainly, the issues in that movie Damon had to overcome were far different from Kurt Busch, but the two men share a basic similarity. Both were talented young men, intellectual geniuses who could be well-spoken when they wanted to be and had the whole world in front of them. Yet, both seemed unable to put away their demons, finding every way possible to throw it all away in the face of several people trying to help them.
Unfortunately for Kurt, there’s one big difference : while the character in that movie never had things handed to him, racing’s older Busch has had every possible opportunity handed to him on a silver platter since Day One at Roush Racing.
That tenure at Roush has now come to an end, in light of Kurt’s latest embarassing incident in a long line of indiscretions and “Oops! I did it again’s!” Except this time, with Roush staring a “reckless driving” incident in the face, one that could very possibly have become a DUI if the breathalyzer used by the police had worked properly, the veil of protection employed by the team around Kurt finally evaporated. With sponsors Diageo and Rubbermaid at their wit’s end, and with only two races left on a contact Kurt asked to be broken for 2006 merely three months earlier, there was no rhyme or reason for Roush to defend another public incident in which perhaps their most talented driver comes out looking like an ass. Simply put, by Roush Team President Geoff Smith, “It’s the last straw for Roush Racing. As I said, we’re officially retiring as Kurt Busch’s apologists, effective today.”
It appeared during the weekend’s events that both Roush and Smith were surprisingly nonchalant about the whole experience; if anything, they appeared relieved to have the opportunity to get rid of what had been an emotionally volatile driver at best in the seven years he’d been driving for the team. Kurt Busch’s laundry list of indiscretions have been long and well-documented, among them:
- July 2002: Directing a verbal tirade towards NASCAR officials on the radio at Daytona after receiving a one-lap penalty for running the stop paddle in the pits under caution. NASCAR enforces a three-lap penalty for misconduct, and Kurt is forced to give a public apology.
- 2002 – 2003: Involving himself in several incidents with Jimmy Spencer on the track over a two-year period, beginning when Busch shoved Spencer out of the way for his first career win at Bristol in the Spring of 2002. The two had bumps and spinouts on the track after that, with frustration resulting in a post-race altercation in August 2003 at Michigan where Spencer punches Busch after the race. Spencer is suspended, but radio chatter reveals his anger is justified as Busch admitted he intentionally attempted to cut down Spencer’s tire on the track.
- October 2003: Failing to show up at a mandatory post-race meeting with NASCAR officials after Martinsville due to intentionally spinning on pit road following mechanical problems. After several other minor incidents that occur between August and October, Kurt’s “hard card” is rescinded for the remainder of the 2003 season, restricting his garage access and forcing him to “sign in” with NASCAR officials every weekend.
- May 2004: Criticism for aggressive driving during the first third of his Championship season, Busch’s problems culminate in an incident in the Nextel All-Star Challenge where he taps teammate Greg Biffle at the start-finish line, wiping out half the field.
- May 2005: Kurt bad-mouths NASCAR over the radio, hits an official with a water bottle in the garage area, and drives erratically with a damaged race car after crashing in the first lap at Darlington this May. Kurt wasn’t fined or suspended, but NASCAR called his actions “not befitting of a champion.”
It’s the last statement in this Hall of Shame list—- “not befitting of a champion”—- that should have everyone all up in arms about the current predicament. One week from now, the sport’s likely to crown a champion, Tony Stewart, that when he won his first title in 2002 was ten times as volatile as Kurt could be in his worst moments. Yet, when defending the title the next season, Stewart controlled his temper and conducted himself in a way to become a fitting ambassador for the sport as its reigning champion, making you forget how badly he’d been NASCAR’s bad boy just one year before.
Kurt, meanwhile, has taken steps to become anything but a deserving champion. His volatile temper continues to be just as uncontrollable as ever, and the actions off the track continue to win him few supporters. His shocking move to go from Roush to Penske seems to be largely based on repairing his image, yet how can you repair an image when it’s your personality, not the car that defines you? Just two weeks ago at Atlanta, three championship contenders saw their chances for the title ended by mechanical failures or accidents, Busch among them. But while the other two drivers elminated, Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield, took the time to compose themselves and give graceful interviews for their sponsors and fans, Busch stormed off red hot, refusing interviews by NBC and leaving the track without comment. Those actions define what type of person you are under pressure, and despite a championship under his belt, it appears the price of fame continues to provoke the worst. Of course, this reign is culminating in a two-week period where Busch won’t even be on the track due to his off-track problems, an embarassing situation at best for a sport that prides itself on integrity amongst its competitors.
Geoff Smith put it best when discussing Kurt’s problems with the media this morning.
“The problem is this is a high-profile business,” he said. “There’s a great burden on the athletes and on the teams in NASCAR to demonstrate that we are a cut above other sports with regard to tolerance for misbehavior or however you want to characterize it.”
As Smith said, drivers in this sport are supported by so many other people, whether it be team personnel or sponsor representatives, that they have the obligation to conduct themselves at a high standard. There is no room for a Terrell Owens in this sport because no one would put up the money necessary for him to compete. The fact that Kurt is the Nextel Cup champion, yet continues to act without realization of his responsibility tells you the magnitude of the problems he’s going to have to overcome.
Of course, a lot is going to be made out of Kyle’s defense of his older brother in his post-race interviews following his win at Phoenix, from a select group of mediahounds carrying Barry Bonds-like grudges against the Buschs, all too eager to throw them under the bus after the way they’ve been treated. But you can’t blame Kyle for defending his brother, even though his surprising Victory Lane comments went too far as to apologize for Kurt, to Kurt’s sponsors, for being forced to take “a true champion out of the race car today.” Later , in his post-race press conference, Kyle made vague statements about how the media usually reports false statements before recomposing himself, offering a quiet statement basically saying he would have no further comment, and continuing on.
But, to be honest, what do you expect Kyle Busch to do? My brother and I are almost exactly the same age as the two Buschs, and as the older brother in my twosome I’d expect my brother to be behind me 100% regardless of whether I was right or wrong. And there’s no disputing that the demise of Kurt is a terrible thing to see. This is a man who, in better moments, is one of NASCAR’s most intellectually gifted characters. Almost choosing to become a licensed pharmacist before getting picked at the right place at the right time for the racing world, Busch’s intellectualism has the potential to drag in those “smartypants” sports fans with Ph. D’s and high-class personalities who claim a “redneck sport” isn’t worth their time. Busch’s SAT-style answers to questions and complex personality appeal to that group in ways a Ward Burton simply can’t.
So what happens next? Busch’s replacement, Kenny Wallace, spoke for all of us when he quoted after the race, “Now, I think the biggest question right now is, what is Miller Brewing thinking?”
And that’s a great question. Certainly, the relationship Kurt needs to establish with Miller now, after what can at the very least be described as an awful mistake, will define his future with not only the Penske organization but the racing world. Such was the focus of Jack Roush, claiming, “He (Kurt) is a young man with potential that has been realized to an extent, but he’s got some challenge building relationships both in the public and in the sponsor community. He’s going to need to really realize that potential going forward.”
In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams becomes the steadying role model needed to change Matt Damon’s life around and reshape his future. For Busch, that task now falls to Roger Penske and a soon-to-be-retired Rusty Wallace, hanging around the organization as a mentor and more than likely someone who’ll be called upon to guide Kurt’s career back in the right direction. Certainly, there are examples out there of people who’ve turned it around. Kurt needs to look no further than this year’s likely Nextel Cup champion, Tony Stewart to find a clear before-and-after picture of what life can be like once you’ve faced your demons and put them to bed.
Initially, based on the small snippet of Kurt the world saw on Sunday he might be ready to do that, fighting back tears as he realized he wasn’t going to get away with this one. Hopefully, Roger Penske can parlay that disgust at Kurt’s own actions and turn it into something positive. “We support him 100 percent for the future,” said Penske when asked Sunday about 2006. “We will work with him to be a great driver.” Unfortunately, Penske’s got it wrong. A great driver, he’s already got. It’s a healthy and positive public image that he’s going to create.
The climax of Good Will Hunting ends with Damon attempting to better his own life. Now, we’re at the peak of the saga of Kurt Busch, and things will either get better or progressively worse. It’s up to Kurt to make the ultimate call to save opportunities thousands of others would give everything they had to be a part of.
Only one thing we know for sure: this week, he’ll have plenty of time to think about it.
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