Commentary

Kyle Busch can take NASCAR to the promised land, if it will let him

NASCAR has everything it needs to agitate the fan base, fill the seats and send ratings through the roof. Free Kyle, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: August 13, 2008, 1:56 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

If Kyle Busch would just listen to me, there wouldn't be an empty seat at a Cup race the rest of this season.

People would blow unemployment checks on tickets, slanderous T-shirts and $4.50-a-gallon gas, just to come and boo him, throw stuff at him, flip him off with both hands en masse …

He would own a Gulfstream jet by next Daytona Speedweeks.

And all would be right with NASCAR again.

Oh, it would be wonderful.

But Kyle won't listen. NASCAR won't listen.

So as it stands, NASCAR's economy is hanging by a beanpole, a lanky driver who taunts the crowds by taking exaggerated bows after he wins, tallying his victories on his fingers.

(I can't wait for his 11th victory, so he can take off his shoes and start counting on his toes. I hope he learns how to make a middle toe stick up at the crowd.)

Just be glad Jeff Gordon whiffed his jab at Busch's head the other day, his insinuation that Busch is fizzling. Take heart that Busch merely snapped his head back like Muhammad Ali in his prime, grinned around his mouthpiece, and won for the eighth time on the Cup tour Sunday at Watkins Glen.

If Gordon had been right, NASCAR would have no deal at all, no pizzazz whatsoever, for the rest of this season.

I mean, nobody's ever going to hate Carl Edwards.

Nowhere will empty seats illustrate how awful this economy is than the grandstands of Michigan International Speedway come Sunday. Michigan is the poster state for the bottom falling out.

I'm no Ben Bernanke, but I can tell you this about trickle-up economics: Give NASCAR fans someone to hate, with enough intensity, and they'll make sacrifices in their own lives just to demonstrate their disdain.

This is life: You have one driver you worship, one driver you despise, and everything else is just a chorus line of cars going around in circles.

You can weather a drought by your favorite, so long as your villain is thriving. If your guy wrecks out, you don't leave, lest you miss a chance to stand up and cheer when the guy you hate wrecks out.

Lest we forget, Dale Earnhardt, sainted now, made his fame and fortune as a villain, booed thunderously. Same with Darrell Waltrip. Those two knew how to cultivate fury.

Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, booed as they've been, never understood how to grow the animosity. They tried to kiss up to the masses. Tony Stewart had potential, but every time he'd throw a tantrum, he'd turn around and blow it with some kind-hearted gesture.

Old drag racers used to call NASCAR competitors and fans "the roundy-rounds," and had this saying: "The roundy-rounds would rather fight than f[ornicate]."

Oh, so true.

[+] EnlargeVoldemort
Eric Charbonneau/WireImageBeing the villain may not be easy, but every Harry Potter needs his Voldemort.

It's as fundamental as the formula for sellouts in rasslin'. The bad guy is the star, the draw. The good guy's just a mannequin, like the straight man in a stand-up comedy team.

There's a reason outrage sells.

It gives the masses someone to blame for all the troubles of the world. Witness how the old wrestling leagues would roll out Ivan Kolov, replete with hammer and sickle tattoo, during the Cold War. Or the Iron Sheik during the early oil shortages.

What finer villain for these hard times in the real world than a bratty 23-year-old, the essence of the Me-Me-Me generation, with a post-adolescent scruff of goatee, hopping to races on private jets?

The public longing to loathe Kyle Busch transcends the stereotypical blue-collar masses.

A literature professor friend, with a string of degrees from hallowed universities, sends me e-mails bemoaning "Vile Kyle." I asked her if she were playing on William Faulkner's character V.K. Ratliff (whose initials actually stand for Vladimir Kyrilytch).

She replied, "Oh, please call him [Kyle] Vladimir, just once, in a column -- no, better yet, Voldemort." (The villain in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.)

If I want to rile my own son, who's away at college, I just ring his cell phone on a Sunday afternoon while Busch is leading and say, "Hey, are you watching the NASCAR race?" One touch of the remote, and the image of No. 18 in front, evokes a disgusted rant about "that little [expletive du jour]."

If he'd just cultivate the image a little more, and NASCAR would allow it, Kyle Busch could become America's highest-paid vent mechanism.

So turn it loose. Free Kyle.

First he's got to cut out all the mealy-mouth pretense at respect for his peers. Waltrip used to blaspheme Richard Petty and David Pearson in public something fierce. Earnhardt used to ride Bill Elliott unmercifully, enraging the following of the Huck Finn character from the Georgia mountains.

Next, Kyle has to get himself put on probation by NASCAR.

See, the great thing about NASCAR probation is that NASCAR never really does anything about it -- like actually suspend a driver.

Once on probation, every move Kyle made would unleash an uproar that he ought to be suspended, and of course he wouldn't be, spawning even more fury.

After his wins, after the burnouts, I'd have Steve Addington, his crew chief, bring him a flowing gold robe -- maybe trimmed in ostrich feathers a la the despised-to-riches rassler Nature Boy Ric Flair -- to wear while counting his wins and taking his bow.

I'd have Addington carry a big hickory walking stick to bang on the catch fences as the fans stood along it shouting nastiness.

And this is key: Just before Addington throws the robe about Kyle's shoulders, I'd have Kyle make the kind of gesture that gained Randy Moss, NASCAR's newest team owner, his notoriety in the NFL: miming the mooning of hostile crowds.

In these hard times, NASCAR could perform no greater public service than easing the minds of the masses with reasons to rage. Nothing could make them happier.

Free Kyle.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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