INDIANAPOLIS – Kurt Busch commanded his driver to step on the gas before the UPS truck sped away. Inside, he was hoping for a package from Italy holding the $2,495 firesuit he’ll need for his latest – and wildest – racing endeavor.
He tailed the truck, zipping around left- and right-hand corners like a road course race. They cornered it, but the package wasn’t there. Busch pursed his lips in frustration.
On his days away from the track, Busch still can’t escape a spirited race. But it’s his urge to race, to win, that makes Busch believe – sometimes to his detriment – that he can take on any endeavor in auto racing.
Even The Double.
On Memorial Day weekend, one of NASCAR’s bad boys is trying to own the title of baddest man on the track by pulling off racing’s version of an IronMan triathlon. In a single day, he’ll try to race in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
To do it, he’s changing his body, calming his emotions and trying to live his life as a family man, not a wild child.
Finish 1,100 miles and Busch will prove he’s still one of the most talented race car drivers in the world.
When the package arrived hours later, Busch eagerly sliced open the box, pulled out the black suit with two red vertical stripes and his new sponsor’s name emblazoned across the chest, and beamed as he held up the uniform he needed for his moonlighting gig.
Busch will be the fourth driver to attempt the feat. Just one – Tony Stewart – has completed both races.
There’s a reason the feat is rare: Anything can derail it. A rain delay. Traffic getting to the airport. Flight problems because of bad weather.
Busch will race for roughly three hours in Indianapolis in the No. 26 Suretone Honda for Andretti Autosport. He’ll have only about 2½ hours to squeeze in a 90-minute flight and a 30-minute helicopter ride to land at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Then, he’ll settle in for another four hours of racing in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 Chevrolet.
“He loves being on the edge. He’s a match for it,” said his former team owner, Roger Penske, a 15-time Indy 500 winner. “I think he wants to show people he’s the most versatile driver in the paddock.”
Few NASCAR drivers have the experience necessary in an open-wheel car to attempt a one-shot race, and even less have permission from their teams to risk injury.
“I told him there was no way I would tell you no,” said Stewart, his SHR owner and teammate. “Car owners look at it from a business standpoint. … But I’m willing to put the business side off to the side for the personal.”
Busch found a fast comfort level in open wheel, and the new kid in Indy opened eyes this week with blistering speeds at practice.
A big part of the challenge is getting used to IndyCar. At 1,500 pounds, IndyCars are lighter and have less horsepower than the 3,500-pound cars in NASCAR Busch usually drives. IndyCars don’t accelerate like stock cars, so drivers have to anticipate the next move faster, and digest what’s happening in front of them.
“I think the hardest part is going to be the 500 just because it’s new to him and he doesn’t know what to expect,” Stewart said.
He’s learning to handle the car with a jammed schedule that makes driving look like the easy part. There are practices in Indy. NASCAR races on the weekend. Don’t forget debriefing meetings on the phone, at the track. There’s stress on the body, stress about the setup for the IndyCar, the stock car. Media obligations, autograph signings, sponsor commitments.
Busch has made a career of pushing through tough times, but often without grace. He’s created nearly as many headlines for feuds with drivers and spats with the media as he has for his trips to Victory Lane.
He’s dubbed “The Outlaw,” and it fits: Busch rants and raves and froths and foams in NSFW language over the radio. His talent has never been doubted, with 25 career Cup wins and the 2004 championship. But his prickly personality has scared away sponsors, and rides with deep-pocketed owners Jack Roush and Penske fizzled. His career detoured into journeyman status with single-car teams the last two seasons before landing at SHR.
“I’m just a competitor that wants success and wants to be the best any time I get in the car,” Busch said. “When I don’t achieve that result, I didn’t deal with it the best of ways.”
But Busch has tried to evolve, and he’s kept himself together this season under the spotlight, comfortable both as a family man and a winner again with a top ride.
Busch has seen a sports psychologist to learn to tame his emotions. And he’s found happiness with girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, the president of the Armed Forces Federation, and her son, Houston. Fans can pledge money for each lap he drives in The Double to the foundation.
“It took me a long while to learn that I just needed to worry about the results in the race car and drive my own race,” he said.
All he has to do is get to the finish line.