The Nextel Cup points leader has been cast as a villain. He is working hard to change that perception.
By BRANT JAMES
Published November 21, 2004
HOMESTEAD - Kurt Busch would love for you to love him.
You can at least stop booing him. He's not a bad guy, he will tell you. Forget those preconceived notions, the admittedly punkish side he showed as a rookie in 2001. Forget the radio chatter about finding the proper time to crumple Jimmy Spencer's fender, before Spencer crumpled one Busch's mouth in the garage at Michigan last year.
Here are a few things you should know so you can start loving this hard-working guy. He washes and waxes his car before he takes his girlfriend on a date. Just like you.
He mows his grass. Just like you.
"I'm an easygoing guy, fun-loving," Busch said. "People probably don't realize that about me."
He likes to play on his tractor and owns two goats.
Anything? If you're not buying it by now, you're probably not going to be convinced. Busch knows that, but he's not going to stop working to repair his public image and a relationship with a race team that strained immediately when he broke into NASCAR's top series with Roush Racing. The reformation project is working so well, at least internally, that his unquestionable ability as a driver has him within a race of winning the Nextel Cup championship.
Busch was regarded as a respectful and skilled racer coming up through the local ranks as a teenager in Las Vegas. Retrofitting his personality began before Spencer planted his meaty fist in Busch's bookish face.
It started with an admission mistakes had been made. Youthful mistakes, but those count. They count big in NASCAR. When Busch won four times and finished third in the points in 2002, his second full season, this NASCAR thing looked pretty easy through his 23-year-old eyes. And he acted that way.
"Kurt's a very confident person," former teammate Jeff Burton said. "Very confident people sometimes tend to do things and not accept responsibility for those things. Kurt was in that category for a while, but he got himself out of that. Now he's much more amenable to different situations. "What can I do? How was this my fault?' It's real easy for a young kid who had success early to go from confident to arrogant, and Kurt did that. But now he understands."
And seems more at ease because of it.
"It's been fun, really, to learn so many things in the past few years and gain my education at this top level," Busch said. "There were some rough edges - a tremendous amount - that had to be polished on, and they all came under the microscope of the Nextel Cup ranks. It's been great to have everything come together this year, and I was the driver who had the most education to go through."
Busch's public undoing came last season when a team communication detailing his desire to bend in Spencer's fender was broadcast. Busch went into attack mode while defending himself, prompting an avalanche of scorn. Grooming Busch into a more savvy driver was a product of sponsor-ordered public relations training and hard lessons learned.
"There were a variety of training elements he didn't predict," Roush Racing president Geoff Smith said. "When you're 23 years old, you see the world only from your eyes, so right away that is a mistake as you're taking your public position. Then he went silent on a couple of points that would have made a difference to the people who were advising him. As a racer, you tend to really hunker down until all the facts come to the surface.
"When you strip all the facts away, he really was the victim, but he's turned into the villain, and he's asking himself, "How did this happen?' "
Media training has removed some of the emotion from his face and the vinegar from his comments, in effect, Smith said, revealing the real man. Still, Busch must find the proper outlet for a temper that has caused many of his problems.
"I think he's a really intense guy in the race car, and as an intense guy, he can have a temper, which is a very small part of his personality," Smith said. "I think he found out he had to not show that temper as much because that was being translated publicly as his whole personality. I think what you see now is a much more balanced Kurt Busch."
Part of the problem was Busch's desire to immerse himself in all aspects of his program. He didn't think there was a problem or condition beyond his control. Though he still is prone to seek five opinions for a solution to one problem, he has learned candor.
"I'm one of those part-time perfectionists," he said. "I don't let things bother me too terribly bad. When I look down the bowling alley lane and one of those pins is off, I'm just going to knock it down because it's down there. I'm not going to worry it's not in the right position.
"I had to adjust because I thought everything would be perfect on any given day to win a race. But there are things in life you adapt to and learn to adjust to and accept it."
Busch admittedly rankled his team and alienated some of his crew while he was learning those lessons.
"He's much better around his crew than he used to be," Smith said. "At first, he was learning about being around teams, and when you're a perfectionist like Kurt is, at first he was very quick to criticize any one thing or any one person that went wrong. Now he realizes that wasn't the way to get the most out of people and the criticism had to be turned into constructive criticism.
"As a 17-, 18-year-old racing with dad, you tell dad whatever it was and hoped it got better. In this environment, guys are volunteering their time for you, and they can go work for other people."
With the internal gears humming, Busch continues to say and do the right things - occasionally attempting some humor - in an attempt to rehabilitate his image among fans. He understands it could be a losing venture and seems willing to live with it.
"The transition from good fans to bad fans can happen so quick - in just one day," he said. "But it takes a tremendous amount of time to build the relationship back.
"When you win four races in a row at a specific track (like he did at Bristol), they're not going to like that. They want to see somebody else win. When you go out and rough up the class bully, they may object to that, but yet that's the fun part about the sport."
If anyone understands anything about Busch, Smith said, whether they like him or not, they should understand that he races clean.
"You don't hear people in the garage criticize Kurt Busch for being a dirty guy or a mean guy or won't give you room," he said. "And yet the perception is he's a villain."
Busch's attempt to transform his image has gone the furthest in exposing a human side. Although a bright student who attended the University of Arizona for a year pursuing a pharmaceutical degree, Busch never has been much of a linguist or a reader.
"I pretty much read nothing really," he said. "I wish I had more of a chance to read great books and raise my horizons and my imagination in books, but it's difficult to sit down and play around with literature."
Smith, more of a wordsmith, has been amused on more than one occasion when Busch tries to play around with vocabulary, either around the shop or in the interview room.
"It's kind of endearing," Smith said. "Kurt, in his efforts to stretch his vocabulary, the malaprop shows up from time to time. There's no question about it. I think it gets better over time, but for those of you who engage in a living writing, it's probably more noticeable if the word is just a little bit off. Sometimes it reminds me of that comedian who was just a bit off. The word was just a bit off.
"Here's a guy who was a very good student in high school in mathematical things, and I'm sure if he had more literary polish on him, those words would flow a little better. The fact he is stretching his vocabulary and doing it with some degree of success - not 100 percent - it shows you he is really trying to be a step above and hopefully engage you all in a way that is not a straight cliche."
Busch was launching into talking points about Roush Racing after winning the pole on Friday when a public address announcement regarding the beginning of the truck race caterwauled through the room.
"Man!" Busch said, pounding his fists and feigning frustration. "That was going to be a great answer."