Thursday December 4th, 2014

Italy, they say, is lovely this time of year. The fall weather, more crisp than cold, is a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat of the summer, when the country’s paucity of air conditioning isn’t quite so charmingly rustic. Town festivals abound, celebrating such delicacies as chocolates and truffles. And, best of all, the cost of doing business—for travel, for lodging—is relatively cheap. As excuses for an off-season get-away-from-it-all trip, they’re Grappa-strong.

So, for that matter, is the one that Kurt Busch came up with last week. With NASCAR in the early stages of its own off-season, the 36-year-old Stewart-Haas driver jetted off to Monza—a vibrant town in the Lombardy region of northern Italy that is known as much for its old churches as it is for a cathedral of speed called Autodromo Nazionale Monza, the staging ground for Formula 1’s Italian Grand Prix. Last week, however, the Autodromo played host to the Monza Rally Show—a three-day exhibition event that featured, among other things, a 10-kilometer race replete with right-hand turns and road conditions that were far from consistent, much less ideal.

Along with those challenges, Busch also had to reckon with a formidable grid, which included YouTube rallying sensation Ken Block. But Busch, ever eager to stretch himself in the cockpit—just last May he came in sixth in the Indianapolis 500—acquitted himself adequately. He flirted with a 15th-place finish before a flat right front tire dropped him to 33rd.

“This was my first real international experience,” Busch told Motorsports.com after the event, “and the number-one most unique situation I’ve been in.”

Naturally, there are others on the list. This week he’s being toasted in Las Vegas as part of Championship Week, a NASCAR wrap party that is half awards show and half fan convention. This weekend he’s expected to run in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, a sports car race in northern California. The following week he is slated to team up with Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay in the Race of Champions, a cross-discipline exhibition event in Barbados. Busch’s itinerary moves at such a breakneck pace that you could almost forget that he’s still under investigation for domestic assault.

The wheels of justice turn slowly

Quick refresher: Early in November, Busch’s ex-partner, Patricia Driscoll, 36, filed a complaint with authorities in Dover, Del., alleging that Busch attacked her inside his motor coach while a NASCAR event was being staged at Dover International Speedway the previous month. She claims that Busch, the winner of 25 Sprint Cup races and a series championship in 2004, grabbed her by the face and repeatedly smashed her head into a wall next to a bed inside the coach. Driscoll further claims to have suffered severe pain, difficulty breathing and bruising on her neck in the wake of this incident. Busch, through various representatives, has forcefully maintained his innocence and painted Driscoll in the press as a jilted ex-girlfriend out for money. Meanwhile, Driscoll—a Washington, D.C.-based defense contractor and president of the Armed Forces Foundation, a nonprofit with a focus on helping servicemen and women reintegrate into civil life—has asked that Busch be compelled to undergo counseling. A typical breakup story, this is not.

Gene Haas and Joe Custer—the owner and president, respectively, of the team Busch drives for, Stewart-Haas Racing—have thrown their support behind Busch. (The team, though, has yet to contact Driscoll or her representative for Driscoll’s side of the story.) All the while, NASCAR has shown a preference to wait until the investigation is completed before considering whether to take disciplinary action against Busch. The wait-and-see approach was especially dismaying to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.)—who, in mid-November, wrote a letter to SHR owners Haas and Tony Stewart and NASCAR president Mike Helton calling for Busch to be suspended from the Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In response, NASCAR chairman Brian France told reporters during a news conference before the Homestead race that “it wouldn’t be right for us to intervene before they’ve even gotten an investigation completed. … We’ll respect [law enforcement’s] process. It’s in their hands.”

For their part, Dover police have stated that, because witnesses in the case largely reside far beyond their jurisdiction—and work in an industry (racing) that is perpetually on the move—their investigation has been particularly challenging. Their meeting with Busch, which came some two weeks after Driscoll’s complaint was filed and more than six weeks after the alleged incident, “has nothing to do with who he is or what he does for a living,” according to Cpl. Mark Hoffman, Dover PD’s public information officer. Joseph Rogalsky, a spokesperson for the Delaware attorney general’s office, told SI.com that he couldn’t speculate on why his office hasn’t decided whether or not to bring charges against Busch because “the case is still under investigation.”

Kurt Busch wears his outlaw reputation with pride.
Kurt Busch wears his outlaw reputation with pride.
Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images

Yet the NASCAR season has been over for two weeks—seemingly ruling out “work commitment” as an excuse not to interview potential witnesses. Furthermore, Driscoll says she has photos to support her claim and that her son was in the room at the time of the alleged incident; she has also offered to take a polygraph test. Further still, Busch—who wears his nickname, The Outlaw, proudly—is well known in NASCAR circles for having a short fuse. He has castigated reporters, apparently flipped off a Secret Service SUV that was carrying first lady Michelle Obama, and berated a Phoenix-area police officer after being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, an incident that led to his being suspended for the final two races of the 2005 season and effectively cost him his job at Roush Racing. For a time Busch consulted with a sports psychologist in an effort to better control his emotions.

Despite such a background, the Kent County Family court seems in no hurry to determine whether Driscoll merits a protection order against Busch. A hearing into the matter was supposed to take place on Tuesday, but it was pushed to Dec. 16. Why? Partly because Busch “will be out of the United States from 11/24/14 to 12/2/14 on a prearranged business matter (…a Race Car Rally competition in Italy),” according to the continuance filing, part of which was reviewed by SI.com. Or, as James Liguori, one of Busch’s lawyers put it, “a contractual obligation that he had to do something for sponsors or someone like that.”

But to hear Busch tell it, the rally race wasn’t that serious—rather just a lark invitation extended to him by the energy drink maker Monster, a cherished patron. “Monster called a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to drive with Ken Block,” Busch told Motorsports.com. I never experienced anything else like it.”

Busch and Patricia Driscoll attended NASCAR's postseason bash in Las Vegas last year.
Busch and Patricia Driscoll attended NASCAR's postseason bash in Las Vegas last year.
Marc Sanchez/Icon SMI

Another reason given for delaying the protection hearing was the fact that Driscoll and Busch don’t live together anymore—an explanation that, while true (she lives in Maryland, just outside of D.C., while he lives in Mooresville, N.C.) dismisses one of the biggest challenges victims face in cases of domestic violence: untangling their lives from those of their abusers. One place where there is still some overlap for Driscoll and Busch is at the Armed Forces Foundation, which Busch shuttered his own foundation to join. At the news conference at Phoenix International Raceway last February announcing Busch’s arrival, he presented Driscoll with a cardboard check for $100,000. The foundation quickly dropped Busch as an athlete sponsor after Driscoll filed her claim, but it hasn’t been able to adjust its events schedule to reduce the former couple’s chances of running into each other on the road just yet. This week in Las Vegas has been especially charged. While NASCAR celebrated Busch and his Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick, the winner of the 2014 championship, at the Wynn, Driscoll quarterbacked the Armed Forces Foundation’s retreat for wounded service members—funded by the billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson—at the Venetian, just an eight-minute walk away down South Las Vegas Boulevard.

No escape

NASCAR, meanwhile, has no clear and practical domestic violence policy on its books. The most the organization can offer right now is a feel for the issue, which it doesn’t address much differently than any others that fall under the general category of unbecoming conduct. When France was asked last month whether domestic violence might one day be a distinct category in the NASCAR rulebook, the chairman hinted at a possible amendment but didn’t get into specifics. “It’s pretty clear when you see what’s happening around the country and in some other leagues that our policy will reflect the significance and importance that it should,” he said. 

The rub, of course, is that France’s peer executives in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL haven’t demonstrated much leadership in this field, either. In fact, the issue of domestic violence has become so acute in sports that on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the issue. Although the committee requested the attendance of top executives from all four major sports leagues and their players’ union counterparts, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts was the only top executive who showed up. The others sent underlings. Said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.): “That does say something about: How big a commitment is there going to be on this?”

NASCAR officials, though, can explain their absence: they weren’t invited to participate. But soon they won’t be able to hide behind that excuse, or the fact that they had their own party to attend in Vegas. SI.com has learned that the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is planning its own hearing on the issue of domestic violence in sports for mid- to late-January. The house committee has requested the attendance of the heads of four major sports leagues and their unions, as their senate counterparts did, but with an addendum for NASCAR’s top brass. This time around, there could be serious consequences for the sports CEOs and executives who don’t take the invite seriously—from subpoenas to a withdrawal of financial support in the form of tax breaks and other benefits.

For a sport like NASCAR, which has been suffering from declines in attendance and television ratings, a loss of government support—most evident in the way it garlands races with service members and punctuates weekly renditions of The Star Spangled Banner with military flybys—it’s a good reason to think twice about not RSVP’ing. “I know they want to make it a full committee,” says a senior congressional staffer with knowledge of the hearing, “which would give it a bit more teeth.”

The way Travis Kvapil's assault case was handled may come back to haunt NASCAR.
The way Travis Kvapil's assault case was handled may come back to haunt NASCAR.
Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Had it taken the lead on the domestic violence issue, NASCAR likely could’ve spared itself the embarrassment of trial in the court of public opinion. It could have used a domestic violence case that was bungled just a year ago—the one against veteran driver Travis Kvapil, whose career continued after he pleaded guilty in a North Carolina district court to assault and imprisonment of his wife (under the plea agreement, the charges will eventually be dismissed if he completes two years of probation)—into a reason to take a stand on Busch. The longer NASCAR dithers the closer it gets to being shamed into suspending Busch during the season if indeed Delaware authorities bring charges against him. Such a scenario, if legislated by the book, would preclude Busch from qualifying for NASCAR’s playoff, the Chase for the Cup, and keep him from challenging for another series title. And if he can’t win, what use is he to his team? Or his sport, for that matter?

But instead of getting out in front of this issue, NASCAR hung back in the draft with everyone else. It’s a laissez-faire attitude that is bought and paid for by the corporate sponsors whose dollars fuel the sport. As a result, issues of morality tend to be viewed through the actuary’s lens and left for the free market to decide. If Driver X were really such a bad guy, then his sponsors would pull their funding and his team would have no choice but to park him.

Even the enduring silence of Sprint, the titular sponsor of NASCAR’s top series, is telling. Two years ago the telecom firm proudly trumpeted a customer initiative that allows domestic violence victims to extricate themselves more easily from cell phone accounts they share with abusers. Now? The company hit mute.

All of this contributes to a climate that makes it difficult for even the most well-intentioned people to do the right thing, much less say it. Jennifer Jo Cobb, an owner-driver in NASCAR’s truck and Nationwide series, broke into the sport in 2004 (at age 31), and stumps for Race 4 Domestic Violence Prevention, an awareness program started by Tracey Passantino—a friend and PR manager with first-hand experience with the issue. Cobb would seem uniquely qualified to speak out about the Busch saga. But ask her about that and, well, out comes this:

“I heard a brief rumor and haven’t had the chance to follow up and look at a headline, to be honest,” she says. “But even if I were, I don’t think I’d be inclined to comment on a peer in that situation. I do think that there can be some good in it. Your first inclination is to roll your eyes and think, Why is the media covering this? But as soon as you do that, you think, No matter who the characters are—whether they be in football or NASCAR, basketball, baseball or an everyday school or office—I think it’s a conversation that needs to be opened up.”

OK, what about NASCAR’s lack of a domestic violence policy?

“I really don’t agree with any sport having sort of broad blanket policy on any type of situation,” she says. “I think NASCAR does a good job of figuring out when and how they need to discipline drivers for off-the-track actions. I do wish that NASCAR was a little more diligent. They’ll fine a driver in a heartbeat about a tweet saying something bad—or even me in this interview, if I say the wrong thing. We all have to walk a very thin line.”

Kvapil’s lot was just as unfamiliar to her as Busch’s was. Once the details were explained to her, she summed up with this: “I think what that boils down to is NASCAR is going to regulate drivers in a way that helps protect the sport.”

Really, the only domestic violence saga that Cobb felt comfortable offering an opinion on was the one involving Ravens running back Ray Rice—and that came unsolicited. The TODAY Show interviews with Rice’s wife earlier this week had Cobb idling in front of the TV. So it goes in NASCAR, where escapism takes on all forms. You just have to wonder how much longer the sport can get away from it all.

 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.