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 in a quiet development near his Maryland home. They cornered it, but the package wasn’t there. Busch pursed his lips in frustration.
He’d have to wait.
On his days away from the track, Busch still can’t escape a spirited race, even without a checkered flag on the line. 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, with a race or two against the clock thrown in.
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, despite his warts and flaws, he’s still one of the most talented race car drivers in the world. And the sponsors and fans and big teams who dumped him during the past few years be damned: He’s still Kurt Freakin’ Busch.
When the package arrived hours later, Busch eagerly sliced open the box in his kitchen, 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. With the racing world watching, he’s ready for the chance.
Busch will be the fourth driver to attempt the feat. Just one – Tony Stewart, considered one of the most proficient drivers in racing – has completed both races.
Only John Andretti, Stewart and Robby Gordon have attempted The Double, and no driver has tried since Gordon in 2004.
There’s a reason the feat is rare: Anything can derail it. A rain delay. Traffic getting to the airport. Flight problems due to 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 fewer have permission from their teams to risk injury. Danica Patrick, an experienced Indy driver, wanted to try in 2013, and her Stewart-Haas Racing team loudly objected.
Stewart and Gene Haas are all in this time for Busch’s attempt.
“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. This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
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 the 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, especially when cars race side-by-side. The lighter IndyCar weights leave the cars more susceptible to high-flying flips and even fatalities, and the open cockpits leave drivers exposed when debris heads their way.
“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 amid a warm-up to race day with a jammed schedule that makes driving look like the easy part. There are practices in Indy. NASCAR races on the weekend. More track time at Indy. 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.
And make it a double.
Busch has trained for his doubleheader with gusto, using a regimen for an elite athlete, and a diet loaded with beetroot juice and homemade oatmeal bars. He has whipped his 5-foot-11, 150-pound frame into the best shape of his racing career.
The real work came off track, about three or four times a week when Busch made the 12-minute jog from the house he shares with his girlfriend and her son in Ellicott City, Maryland, to the Okinawan Karate Dojo. Busch believed teaming the principles of karate with intense exercises would help him build physical and mental toughness.
Sensei Stanley Crump instructed Bush through twists and crunches for about an hour in boot-camp fashion. He crawled on his elbows, did pushups with one arm behind his back, and every heart-pounding detail was logged on his Basis health tracker on his wrist.
“When I feel that fatigue setting in, that’s when I’m going to have Sensei Stan on my shoulder pushing me through there,” he said.
Just wing it? That kind of attitude toward fitness and nutrition has been wiped clean. With military precision, his girlfriend has imbued proper training and eating tips into his lifestyle, even mapping out his race weekend diet.
Before getting behind the wheel, he’ll drink sugar water with electrolytes infused with oxygen and snack on raisins. He’s under orders to take a nap on that flight to North Carolina, keeping him bright-eyed instead of bleary-eyed for the long haul ahead.
“I’ve learned good discipline from all this,” Busch said.
Crump likens Busch’s workouts to boiling water – without the heat, the body returns to a tepid state. He gave Busch homework, too. With Busch fully devoted to the track the last two weeks heading into The Double, he took his workouts on the road.
“He needs the stamina and muscular endurance so he can last throughout those whole races and better manage the anxiety he’s got to push himself through,” Crump said.
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.
Any fan with a scanner knows when he is penalized, or if an incident happens on track, to switch to his channel to hear him melt down.
Busch’s 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 in his skin 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.
Busch swipes through pictures of Houston on a recent hunting trip in New Zealand. He takes him fly fishing and naturally, the kid known as “The Mini Outlaw,” is a regular at the track.
Having a child in his life has made him more aware of his behavior (watch those swear words!).
“I think I’ve been given credit for my talent or results on the track of late. It’s been nice,” he said. “If you’re 35, you should know my now. I wish I knew things at 25 that I know now. Call me a late bloomer.”
But just completing The Double gives him a chance to prove his doubters wrong, and establish himself as one of the best in racing history.
All he has to do is get to the finish line.