Editor’s Note: Tom Bowles’ writing for Frontstretch moves to Tuesday and Wednesdays this season. Check out Did You Notice? tomorrow and every Wednesday along with his Monday column for Athlon Sports.
When processing the latest twist in the Kurt Busch case, a Delaware judge’s decision released Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but think about Busch’s teammate Tony Stewart. Six months ago, Stewart was involved in an on-track sprint car accident that claimed the life of fellow driver Kevin Ward, Jr., tragically run over under circumstances we’ll never fully understand. The three-time Cup champion, one of the most recognizable figures in racing, was immediately put under a cloud of scrutiny, facing potential manslaughter charges and a civil suit threatened by the Ward family. A heartbroken Stewart voluntarily took three weeks off; the national media went hogwild, with major outlets from ABC’s Good Morning America to NBC’s Nightly News painting the driver as an on-track terror with an anger problem. As evidence was sent to the grand jury, building speculation about an indictment people within the sport waited for NASCAR to take charge, making their stance on the situation clear while helping deflate a PR nightmare for the sport.
Well, the sanctioning body built a strategy alright; turns out they were consulting with Switzerland. A quick look back at the Stewart case reveals NASCAR’s typical modus operandi when public opinion is split on a crisis: do nothing, say as little as possible and let everyone else make decisions for them. In the end, it was a grand jury that let them off the hook, vindicating Stewart and in the process making it easy for NASCAR to look like a hero for not jumping to conclusions.
I bring up Stewart because the way the sport has acted in the Kurt Busch case appears remarkably similar. CEO Brian France, throughout the process has danced around so many bullets on the issue you’d think he’s a professional ballerina. (Detractors can only hope he changes careers.) France, as recently as Sunday’s national interview on FOX television has said he “wants the justice system to play out” before acting on the Busch case. Understanding domestic violence is a hot-button issue, the sport was comfortable letting others conclude their investigation instead of the sport conducting their own.
In NASCAR’s defense, it’s been a difficult case to navigate, filled with conflicting information, embarrassing YouTube videos and wild claims of secret government missions, assassins and psychological manipulation. It would be so easy if we were limited to one simple set of facts, whether or not a poor woman had her head slammed against the wall in a brutal act of violence. Instead, the Kurt Busch versus Patricia Driscoll breakup, played out in public through Delaware’s Family Court, has been so wildly unpredictable, filled with such outlandish claims you thought you were reading a screenplay instead of real life. Driscoll claimed Busch had alcohol and anger management problems; Busch claimed she was an assassin who disappeared for days at a time to work in secret for the U.S. Government. It was an ugly end to a three-plus year relationship, a case that makes you feel bad for a young boy caught in the middle of this madness whose only “crime” is that he was witness to these events as Patricia Driscoll’s impressionable young son.
When a soap opera plays out in public view, it’s hard for NASCAR to cast judgment. Sometimes, playing neutral can even be the right call. But after Monday’s decision, in which Delaware judge David Jones granted a protective order for Driscoll against Busch, the tables are turning. The sport has itself a serious problem; playing Switzerland, you would think is no longer on the list of multiple choice options.
In this decision, available for public view, Jones pulled no punches against Busch. The order is confirmation, at least in this judge’s eyes, that Busch has “committed an act or repeated acts of domestic violence” against Driscoll. It orders Busch to be evaluated for mental health problems related to “anger and impulse control.” That’s aside from the one-year protection issued for Driscoll, a list of restrictions that will keep Busch 100 yards away at all times except in circumstances where NASCAR-related employment for both would force them to be in the same room. Even then, Busch is not allowed to contact Driscoll in any way.
In response, Stewart-Haas co-owner Gene Haas remained defiant, refusing to pull Busch from the car while a public statement by the company claimed they’d await the attorney general’s decision on whether to file charges. It’s a decision NASCAR appears on board with, releasing a similar statement. “[The sport] is aware of the court order issued today,” they said. “We now await the full findings of the Commissioner and any actions by the Attorney General of Delaware related to the allegations against Busch. As we stated earlier, NASCAR fully recognizes the serious nature of this specific situation and the broader issue of domestic violence. We will continue to gather information and monitor this situation very closely.”
Hmm. Well, looks like NASCAR is playing Switzerland after all. The only question under these circumstances is why. While the court of public opinion remains divided, the facts provided by a judge are all you need. What will change between now and Friday, in a longer opinion that will negate the words “committed an act of domestic violence?” Seems like that’s already a matter of public record. What more does the sport need to make decisions? Have they not learned anything from a certain Ray Rice case last summer, a situation the NFL bungled with disastrous consequences?
Certainly, a Busch suspension won’t please everyone. There are plenty of people out there who believe he’s not guilty, who believe this whole situation is a comedy act. But they’re not the ones who get to make decisions. A Delaware Family Court judge just “closely monitored” the situation and came up with the only opinion that matters, considering it’s legally binding: Busch is guilty of something.
That means NASCAR’s has to show its hand. Now. No more “information gathering.” Time for Mr. France to do some “decision making,” especially with Busch scheduled to race in the Duels Thursday night. Otherwise, others will make decisions for them, in the same ugly way the Tony Stewart story spun out of control in the national media. It’s a black eye NASCAR doesn’t need to start 2015; they’re in position to stop it, right here and right now. That’s what a national sport, with a strong commissioner in control of his constituents would do.
There’s still time. But I’m not optimistic.