He grabbed the wheel, mashed the gas pedal and sped through the minor league ranks like, well, a teenager who grew up in a town full of gamblers. Out of the driver's side window, six years flew past in one long, smooth ribbon. Then in the seventh year, Kurt Busch lifted. His career path was splitting in two.
This was in 1999. Busch was 21 and considering a dilemma that every talented driver who hopes to pursue fame and wealth on American tarmac reckons with before s/he is old enough to rent a car, much less race one: Do I want to spend the rest of my youth behind the wheel of something that looks like a rental (a stock car) or something that looks like a rocket (an IndyCar)? Not only had Busch's formative experience piloting cars with chassis and open wheels in his native Las Vegas and beyond prepared him for either course, but "I had a guy offer me a ride in a late model and I also had an open-wheel ride opening up too," the now 35-year-old driver recalled. "It was that fork in the road. Literally, I felt it."
In the end, there was no correcting for the pull of stocks. So Busch buckled in and sped off anew, winning a regional series championship his rookie season and placing second in the Truck Series the following year. And then in 2004, the breakthrough: Three years after becoming a full-fledged driver at the Sprint Cup level (a.k.a. stock car's major leagues), Busch captured the series championship on the strength of three checkered flags, 10 top-five finishes and 21 more top-10 finishes in 36 starts. Still, even as stock car success rushed at Busch like a mighty draft wind — albeit one that would cause him to lose control over the years — he sometimes wondered what could have been if he had steered in the opposite direction on his career path and down that forsaken open-wheel path.
This year, he's done wondering. On Tuesday, Busch announced he will attempt to qualify for the biggest race of the American open-wheel racing season, the Indianapolis 500. It takes place May 25, Memorial Day Sunday. The same day as the 12th race of the Sprint Cup season, the Coca-Cola 600. The same Coca-Cola 600 that takes place 430 miles southeast of the Brickyard, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The same track Busch has been a fixture at for the past 13 seasons.
The average American drives around 50 miles over Memorial Day weekend. Busch hopes to drive 1,100 on Sunday alone. "It's about challenging myself in motorsports," Busch said. "I've been a stock car guy my whole life. Been a champion. I've got a competitive ride in the Cup series. And to piece together a competitive ride to go win the Indy 500 is something within itself."
It's a daunting crossover attempt, but not one without precedent. Three men have tried to race this Memorial Day double-header, the last in 2004. The only one to cover all 1,100 miles of it is Tony Stewart; on his second and final attempt, in 2001, he finished sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte. Stewart could've tried again in 2013 — Roger Penske offered him a ride in last year's Indy 500 — but he passed. Stewart has a Cup team, Stewart-Haas Racing, to mind after all. In fact, it added a pretty big name to its stable of drivers last summer: Kurt Busch.
Before signing with SHR, Busch had been exploring his options on the open-wheel circuit. Last May he completed the Indy 500 rookie orientation program through Andretti Autosport and strongly considered becoming more than just a test driver for them. "He did a great job for us," owner Michael Andretti said. When the opportunity came back around this year, Busch pounced.
What exactly did Busch sign up for? A massive grind. Along with spending most of the month of May testing and qualifying for the Indy 500, Busch will honor his standing commitments in three Cup races and all the additional seat time that goes with that. He will make at least 10 trips to Indy during that time — some of them comped by Cessna, a sponsor. The green flag drops at noon in Indianapolis, and then again at 6 in Concord, NC. Still, Busch would be the first to tell you the troops have it harder. That's another reason why he's pursuing this, to raise money for the Armed Forces Foundation.
To endure all those hard miles in the air and on the road, Busch is stepping up his fitness game. He hired a martial arts trainer and enlisted the help of health bracelet manufacturer Basis, another sponsor. They've outfitted him with a watch that posts his vitals to the web in real time. The Andretti team web site hopes to add Truman Show-style reports of its own in May. The subtext behind both endeavors reads something like this: feel free to hold Busch's feet to the fire.
Amid all Busch's physical fine-tuning, he must also become one with his wheels. His regular ride, the No. 41 Chevy, couldn't be more different from the IndyCar cockpit he'll soon be climbing into. "The best way to explain it is my world is a Chevy Corvette where the engine's in the front and IndyCar is Ferrari with the engine in the back," Busch said. "If the engine's in front of you, you're gonna go where that engine goes. If the engine's behind you, it's gonna try to swing around. You have to control that."
The challenge for Busch will be in compartmentalizing his disparate experiences behind the wheel. The feedback he gives each team has to be consistent to guarantee an optimal setup — especially on the IndyCar, which is faster and lighter and sensitive to slight calibration. Also, it doesn't have a roof. "If you had to ask me a question on what the hardest part about all this is, it's that dirty air, the draft," he said. "Experiencing that with 33 other cars is something that I can't prepare for."
It is, however, something he can ask about. NASCAR is choc-a-block with drivers with open-wheel experience. Along with Stewart, there's Danica Patrick, Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar Series champion eight years removed from chugging milk at the Brickyard. In fact, when the two were garagemates at Penske Racing, Busch helped Hornish through his transition from open-wheel to stock car racing. That's usually how the traffic flows, from IndyCar to NASCAR. Of course Busch, racing's resident Ricky Bobby, would have to try this move in reverse.
That's enough to make any IndyCar stalwart nervous. As if surviving the Indy 500 wasn't already a chore, now Indy drivers have to keep lookout for one of the Sprint Cup series' premier paint swappers. Yes, Busch knows he'll have the intimidation factor on his side, but it won't amount to much if he pushes past the limit of open-wheel racing. There, the margin for error is razor thin. "You have to up against that 99% level, but don't cross over it," he said. "Whereas a stock car, I'm so comfortable with it, I can drive that car at 105 percent and get away with it." Case in point: He finished third at the Coca-Cola 600 last year and in 2010, sprayed himself in soft drink after winning it all.
Still, knuckling down for 600 miles is one thing. Staying in the zone for that first 500, assuming Busch qualifies, is quite another. If Busch didn't have a knack for making time and terrain fly by, no one would give him a gambler's chance. His strategy for getting through Memorial Day probably won't be much different than the one that got him to this point: foot on the gas and stay to the left. With a lot of work and a few more breaks along the way, Busch wouldn't just be bringing his own two-decade journey around the track full circle. He would be enlightening all who watch him on Memorial Day or otherwise to a truth that extends far beyond motorsports: the most satisfying race a man an ever win is one against himself. Whatever miles Busch drove past that would be a bonus.