Thomas Bowles · Tuesday June 5, 2012
There are a lot of people who have been recipients of Kurt Busch’s potty mouth tirades over the past 12 months: Roger Penske, Steve Addington, Bob Pockrass, Dr. Jerry Punch and Jenna Fryer. Missing from that list, though, are three people in particular who could have really been the focal point of Busch’s anger from the start. They may not know this driver from a hole in the wall, but rest assured, if I were in their shoes I’d be booking a trip to Switzerland and getting busy producing a fake ID.
Their names are Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, also known as the three founders of YouTube. That popular video sharing device, right up there with Facebook and Twitter, may be the biggest accomplice in Kurt Busch’s downfall, escalated by Monday’s ten-day suspension which has put the former champ’s career on life support. (At press time, James Finch was rumored to announce the firing of the driver of his No. 51 as early as Tuesday morning on SIRIUS.) Car owners who were once salivating over Busch’s 2013 free agency have distanced themselves faster than when Jose Canseco walks into a pharmacy. J.D. Gibbs, who was being swayed by Kurt’s younger brother Kyle to offer a deal said the older Busch, as of this morning, was “no longer on his radar screen.”
Perhaps that’s because he got busy watching something on his computer screen instead. Busch’s Saturday postrace threat on Pockrass, who works for the Sporting News can be seen at anytime by anyone with a smartphone and the ability to type the words “Kurt Busch.” As we speak, tens of thousands are watching his latest tirade, not unlike the 1 million-plus who witnessed via social media his previous brouhaha with one of the Deans of NASCAR Pit Reporting, Dr. Jerry Punch. Unlike the 1980s, when a simple back-and-forth might not have even been mentioned or reported the rudeness, now we get unending reruns. The rage can now be branded as Busch’s behavior, 24/7.
The reality, of course, is that Kurt isn’t that petulant all of the time. But in a sport reliant on corporate funding, whose sponsorship of teams and drivers is connected to positive first impressions, Busch’s one-minute snippets offer up an instant buzzkill. This instant capture and broadcast phenomenon also put NASCAR in an inescapable box, one Busch even admitted after responding to the incident Monday. How can you put someone on probation, justifiably for a head-scratching incident in its own right at Darlington and then have them violate their punishment, in public only to stand there and do nothing? How would anyone believe in your ability to govern the sport, let alone punish offenders in the future with any type of consistency or strength? “Probation” might as well mean “free girl scout cookies” in that scenario; NASCAR, whether they liked it or not was left with no choice but to throw the book at Busch.
For some, this dramatic downward spiral was expected; after all, Busch has admitted to anger management issues, seeing a sports psychologist but showing minimal, if any improvement on-track in 2012. (Examples: Darlington’s bizarre punting of Newman, even though the No. 39 car had no involvement in his wreck and weekly insults towards crew members, intensifying with every week the No. 51 car runs 20th with, well, 30th-place equipment). For others, they will sit there and say the media was out to get Kurt Busch from the start. After all, most of the driver’s off-track problems the last two seasons have involved reporters; racers and those who employ them are a rough type, they know the personalities they hire and will sweep a lot of bad behavior under the rug.
But with the media, you can’t, because even in this day and age there is still a professional line between the driver who races and the reporter who’s paid to cover them. Both must feel safe to work in their environment; both must feel they’re in a position to get jobs done. What’s made it worse for Busch is the two most infamous incidents, involving Pockrass and Punch, are with reporters who hold sterling track records. The questions asked in both cases were within reason.
On Saturday, what were fans talking about after the Nationwide race? The contact between Busch and Justin Allgaier, combined with their heated discussions on pit road. If Pockrass doesn’t ask the follow-up question, then the people who read that reporter’s stuff no longer think their man is doing the job. The drivers may not like some of the basic questions, but the reporters also can’t make up the quotes – they have to hear them. Busch had every opportunity to simply play it politically correct, give a canned answer no one cared about and walk away. But he didn’t. In both cases, patience was replaced by petulance, which severed the connection between his brain and his tongue.
We are a sport obsessed with its branding and image. You’re right if you’re sitting there thinking Dale Earnhardt may not have survived as easily in this 2012 environment, but the pitfalls are the same for every athlete. Being a fiery personality comes with a cross to bear; every mistake, every “outside the norm” comment can be scrutinized to the point the people that pay you will pay attention. And if those in power fear a negative reaction, possible loss of income or future fan support…well, your career could be as good as toast.
Busch after his actions last season decided simply not to give a damn. That’s his choice, and there will always a legion of fans who will appreciate a guy who throws temper tantrums, mixing anger with aggression while wearing emotion on his sleeve. There’s no reason a driver has to walk the line in order to fit in with the brand he represents.
But in 2012, that’ll also cost him his job.
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