Path to stardom unusual for Busch
This trip down memory lane goes back, like most, to the wide-eyed dreams of a teenager. To that predictable school assignment: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Kurt Busch just won the most coveted trophy in American motorsports, edging Jimmie Johnson by eight points after finishing fifth at Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In the week leading up to the crowning moment, the pressure around him was as thick as Busch is slender, but he still laughed when he thought back to that high school assignment.
What was Busch's dream life? Was it that of a rock star, a president, a film maker, a cop, or maybe even exactly what he is now, a race car driver on top of the world?
No, it was none of those things. Kurt Busch dreamt of being ... a pharmacist.
The story of Kurt Busch doesn't start with ambitions of becoming the next Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt. Growing up under the glowing lights of Las Vegas, Busch was more interested in excelling at school and cheering on his beloved Chicago Cubs.
Busch graduated high school with a 3.6 grade-point average and left his hometown for Tucson, where he attended the University of Arizona to study pharmacy. And though it's true that, by then, Busch had been bitten by the racing bug and spent his weekends at the racetrack, he was more concerned with six years down the road, graduating with the Pharm.D., and maybe some day opening a chain of drug stores.
Still, like anyone bitten by the bug, racing wasn't completely out of the picture. In fact, even then Busch knew exactly what he'd do with the money he might make hawking pills: "Buy some wheels," he says.
Turned out Busch didn't need to throw a Dr. in front of his name to finance his racing jones. When you've got the skills Busch possesses, people notice -- even if you're just a weekend warrior.
To fully understand how all this fell into place for Busch, one must go back to the real beginning. Back to West Sahara Avenue and the garage behind Tom and Gaye Busch's Las Vegas home.
Tom was a local racer gaining popularity around Las Vegas. He drove Late Models in the 1980s and 90s, winning a track championship at the now-closed Craig Road Speedway in North Las Vegas, and taking checkered flags at Irwindale Speedway. But these accolades came after almost a decade of hard work.
Tom always had to toil for his racing achievements. So he would labor for hours in his garage, greasy-faced and blistered. Kurt and little brother Kyle, who now races in NASCAR's Busch Grand National Division and is slated to move up into the Nextel Cup series soon, would watch their father for hours.
Busch describes the early relationship with his dad as more than father-son. He called it crew chief-racer. He called it best buddies.
"My father instilled in me the love for racing," Busch said. "That's where it began was from his love. There was always a car in the garage, and so we were involved very early."
Involved, yes. But Tom Busch wanted his children to understand the cars before he let them drive one; he wanted them to reap the reward of hard work, like he did.
He bought a couple of Dwarf Cars for the family, and he tutored his eldest on how to set up a car.
"You have to know the car before you can drive it," Tom would always say.
For Kurt, the education lasted until he was 14. After that, from his very first days driving a Dwarf Car at Parhum Valley Speedway, it was Kurt Busch the young teenager who took everyone else to school.
Busch was named Dwarf Car Nevada rookie of the year less than two years after his first race. The next year, he won the Nevada Dwarf Car championship and graduated to Legend Cars, which are replicas of cars from the 1930s. In 1996, Busch was Legend Cars National Rookie of the year and Legend Cars Western States champion.
This began what would become a habit of garnering rookie of the year awards in every Series he competed. It would also begin an expectation that this young phenom who caught on so quickly would one day be champion.
"I wouldn't say it came easy, but I understood how to win and (at every level) I determined how I could do it," Busch said.
Busch got off to a rocket start in racing, winning 22 events in a row. In 1996, he graduated from Durango High School and went off to Tuscon. The Featherlite Southwest Series was just gaining popularity then, and Busch was ready to take a crack at racing Late Models like his pop. So, just like when he worked nights for the Las Vegas Water District digging ditches to free his weekends to race, Busch studied during the week and drove home every weekend to compete.
"It was busy and hard at times," Busch said, "but it's like anyone who loves racing -- you do it in order to do what you love doing."
Busch was again an instant hit, finishing third his first time out and quickly compiling a stack of top-10 finishes and victories.AP Photo/Dave FrechetteKurt Busch will join Jeff Gordon as the third-youngest Cup champion if he pilots his No. 97 car to a top-three finish this Sunday.
He started shifting his priorities and raced in enough events in 1998 to claim rookie of the year honors. In 1999, he inherited the ride of a local legend who had died the year before. Piloting the Carolina blue No. 70 Star Nursery Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Busch hit the pavement for his first competitive season in NASCAR's regional division. He won the title, but more importantly, he won the attention of an inconspicuous short man observing from afar.
In hindsight, the straw hat and dark-rimmed glasses should have made Jack Roush all but unnoticeable.
Busch left Tuscon after winning the Southwest Featherlite title and drove home to Las Vegas. He enrolled in night school at UNLV with no particular plan for how to achieve his new goal: Racing in what was then called the Winston Cup series.
To everyone's surprise, the plan unfolded more quickly than Busch could have imagined. In the Fall of 1999, Busch got an invitation to attend what a group of Roush Racing employees called the Gong Show. Roush Racing was expanding its empire and went on a nationwide search to find a driver for its Craftsman Truck Series entry. A dozen drivers from around the country who had won various regional titles converged upon Toledo, Ohio, where Roush held tryouts.
As Busch recalls, it wasn't his best outing.
"I don't think my mind was right," he said. "It wasn't my best day."
And, yet, the Roush group wasn't ready to give up on him. Something about the kid piqued the team's curiosity. They invited him to try again, this time they'd fly to Phoenix and watch him go.
Busch went. Early one morning, about a week later, he got a phone call. It was Jack Roush on the other end.
When Kurt Busch started racing Dwarf Cars, he won rookie of the year in 1994 and the title in 1995. When he started out in Legend Cars, he won national rookie of the year and the regional title in 1996. When he moved into Late Models, he won rookie of the year in 1998 and the title in 1999.
Who could blame the kid for having high expectations? Consider that he did all of this before his 21st birthday and yet conducted himself with the maturity of a grizzled veteran. So it wasn't apparent then that failing to meet his high expectations could take a toll on Busch's attitude.
It came as no surprise to Busch or his family when he stormed into NASCAR, won four races in the Truck Series and finished second to Greg Biffle in the points race. He easily won rookie honors, but was catapulted into the unthinkable before he had a chance to return to the trucks and try his hand at the title.
Late in 2000, Roush announced that he was going to field the No. 97 Ford and Kurt Busch was going to drive it. At 22, still not old enough to rent his own car, Busch had achieved the second dream of his young life -- and was more than content to officially boot the pharmacy idea.
"It was pretty unbelievable," Busch said. "It was all hard to believe, in part because it had all happened so fast to where I was in the (Featherlite Series) just two years before and then found myself with a Cup ride."
But Busch's entry into the Cup Series was nothing like he'd expected. The competition was insane. His fortunes, it seemed, had left him. Forget rookie of the year, which he lost to Kevin Harvick, Busch failed to even finish among the top 25 drivers in his first season. He failed to finish a race seven times.
It was a sharp punch to the gut for the kid so used to winning.
"It was apparent that he wasn't used to losing," Roush said. "But there's a lot to learn when you come into this level of racing. It takes a lot of work and it takes some time. I'm not sure he realized all of that exactly when he came in."
The disappointment took a toll on Busch's attitude. A guy who was heralded by local scribes in Vegas for his respect for elders and his calm, collected demeanor began to earn a rep for throwing temper tantrums.
In his first two seasons, he got into several on-track incidents. There was some innocent rubbing in 2001 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. There was a not-so-innocent spin out of Todd Bodine which drew the veteran's ire. In 2002, Busch tangled with Kevin Harvick, prompting Harvick to smack, "We need to put a restrictor plate on his foot because obviously his foot doesn't register with his brain."
After being assessed a penalty that same season, Busch went on an expletive-filled tirade over his team radio, which of course is open to the public and NASCAR. He called the sport's president, Mike Helton, every four-letter word imaginable.
But nothing compared to the duels between Busch and NASCAR's Mr. Excitement -- Jimmy Spencer. The feud had a couple of early rounds, but none more memorable than the 2002 Brickyard 400. Spencer and Busch beat fenders for much of the day before Spencer sent Busch spiraling into the wall. Busch exited his car, waited for Spencer to come back around, flailed his arms at the veteran driver and patted his behind.
After the race, Busch called Spencer a "decrepit old has-been" with "the brain of a peanut." Spencer's response proved a bit more telling: "Kurt has a lot to learn, and some of that is to control his mouth."
Jack Roush's thoughts exactly.
"I've said so many times, then and now, that I admire Kurt for his passion," Roush says. "I've never seen anybody learn everything you have to learn in this sport as quickly as he did, and he knew what he was capable of. The passion that he brought to racing and trying to win sometimes just spilled over."
“ My father instilled in me the love for racing. That's where it began was from his love. There was always a car in the garage, and so we were involved very early. ” — Kurt Busch on how he got started
Roush told his driver to attend anger management classes that season. Busch did, and he emerged a new man.
He won four races in 2002 and followed up with four more victories in 2003. He joined such legends as Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Jeff Gordon as the only four drivers to win at least five Cup races before their 25th birthday. He was drowned with boos at many racetracks for his antics, but by late 2002 he'd gotten control of himself and returned to the mind-set that served him so well as a kid.
It served him well that season, too, as Busch set a torrid pace at the end of the 2002 campaign and shot from 12th to third in the final points standings.
"In this environment, there are going to be issues of maturity," Roush said at the time. "But you can see how talented he is. And you can see how much he can accomplish when he's got his head on straight."
The entirety of NASCAR Nation can see that, now.
Busch and his No. 97 Ford Taurus team orchestrated an amazing finish this season. Busch won one race and finished top 10 in all but one of the final 10 races. Many times, he had to battle back from the rear of the pack after tire, chassis or setup troubles -- including in the finale, when a freak broken wheel didn't keep him from coming back to take fifth and with it, the title.
Eight of Busch's last 10 top 10s came in the form of top-five finishes.
This weekend, Busch claimed his first major NASCAR title, becoming the third-youngest to do so at 26 years old. The understanding beforehand clearly was there when you looked in his eyes. He was aware of the implications that Sunday has on his career and how he's remembered. He knows, because he's been there before. Years ago, when he won his first NASCAR title.
Busch recalls a pivotal race in that 1999 Southwest Featherlite campaign. He was second in the points when the series headed to Sears Point in California.
"It was just one of those races that you put up on a different stage," he said. "You have TV there, you're running a regional series, you've got the Cup owners and drivers watching the race. And that changed the way that our team viewed each individual member after (winning) that, just because we had come up to a different level. It was fun to compete at that level and finish in the top three most of the rest of the year."
But Busch is done with the past. He can't look back there much to figure out how his future will turn out. Digging ditches for a water company, going to school dreaming of owning a drug store, how does any of that equate to being a NASCAR star?
It doesn't, not in most people's worlds anyway.
From the day Busch signed with Roush, his life took a different path. It was no more easy competition, easy wins. It was headaches and heartaches for which no pharmacist could dispense a remedy. It was knuckles to the ground and late nights at the shop. It was a shouting match with his old crew chief that paired him with his current one, Jimmy Fennig, who insisted that Busch become more aware of his car. He insisted, like Tom Busch had so many years ago, that Kurt put in some hard work if he wished to reap the rewards.
Busch now is reaping those rewards. But win or lose, one thing's for certain: Dad was right about hard work. You win with it, it's all the more satisfying. You lose with it, it's comforting.
"It's been fun to be part of no matter what the outcome is on Sunday," Busch said before his triumph. "We've brought our team to this level and we've had a tremendous amount of fun to be able to compete like this. If we win the championship, that is the absolute optimum goal. And if we come up just a bit short, then it doesn't matter to us (because) we're having fun doing it."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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