Happily-ever-after ending unlikely in Kurt Busch's domestic violence case
DOVER, Del. -- The man in the black suit rose from the defendant’s table, flashed his gold cuff links, smoothed his neat chestnut hair and coolly made his way to the witness stand on the opposite side of the room. There he was presented with a leather-bound bible. He placed a hand on it and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help him. Just before taking this oath, he waived an entitlement to protection from incriminating himself under the Fifth Amendment. After a month of silence in the wake of a formal accusation of domestic assault that had been made public, Kurt Busch was sharing his side of the story.
It was a moment long in the making for the star NASCAR driver. In November, Busch’s ex-partner, a 37-year-old defense contractor named Patricia Driscoll, filed a complaint with authorities here in Delaware alleging that the 2004 Cup champion, also 37, attacked her inside his motor coach during a NASCAR event at Dover International Speedway a month earlier. In lieu of jail time for Busch, Driscoll has asked that he receive mental health counseling if he is found to have done what she says he did. In lieu of substantial financial compensation for damages, she has asked for an order of protection so that she can safely continue her work as president of the Armed Forces Foundation, a military charity that is a regular presence at NASCAR events.
Responses to this affair have been slow to come—in part, authorities say, because of the deliberate pace at which Driscoll filed her complaint. Dover police have yet to announce that they’ve completed their investigation. That, in turn, has kept the state attorney’s office idle. Another delay occurred in early December when Busch requested that the protection order hearing be postponed so that he could race in Italy. All the while the allegation hung over him and his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, like the smell of burning rubber, raising questions about NASCAR’s internal disciplinary practices and drawing auto racing into the national conversation about domestic violence in sports.
On a cool and foggy Tuesday morning in mid-December, Driscoll finally got her day in the Family Court of the State of Delaware. She was the first to arrive for the 8:30 a.m. appointment, pulling up in an unmarked police cruiser and walking through a front entrance of the courthouse in wraparound sunglasses and a light brown overcoat. Ten minutes later, an SUV carrying Busch and his legal team—led by the Houston-based Rusty Hardin—rolled past the same spot, swung around the building and unloaded most of its passengers at a back entrance, out of the sight of a modest collection of reporters perched outside the building.
Most observers expected the parties to be in and out of the Family Court’s airy and colorful first-floor courtroom in three hours. Typically, that’s the amount of time that a judge needs to conclude with reasonable certainty whether the respondent (Busch, in this instance) inflicted domestic violence on the petitioner (Driscoll), and whether there is a risk of continued violence or harassment by the respondent. But this hearing lurched on for two days without a resolution, playing out more like a divorce trial between Busch and Driscoll. The matter of character would prove to be as critical for attorneys on both sides to establish as the alleged domestic violence incident itself. Along the way, piles of dirty laundry were unloaded for the record—including details on the thinking inside Stewart-Haas in the wake of Tony Stewart’s dirt track racing accident that killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. in August.
The job of sorting out this mess has fallen to a bow-tie enthusiast named David Jones, the commissioner of the Family Court. But other state authorities are likely to be closely following along, too. The decision to bring criminal charges against Busch could well rest on the outcome in this case, which resumes on Jan. 12. The driver's big moment on the stand didn’t come until Day 2 and it passed in an hour. To hear Busch tell it—mere feet away from Driscoll, who kept her gaze fixed downward while rubbing a pearl rosary—he is the one who needs protection.
Before the trouble started on the evening of Friday, Sept. 26, two days before the AAA 400—the first elimination race of NASCAR’s freshly re-imagined “playoff,” the Chase for the Sprint Cup—Busch's fortunes on the track changed. In April 2013, he'd signed a three-year contract to drive for Stewart-Haas racing and after a promising start to the 2014 season, which saw him win at Martinsville in March and qualify for the Chase, Busch suddenly found his championship hopes flickering.
Earlier on Sept. 26, Busch qualified 22nd for the AAA 400, a hardly insurmountable grid position for him; and on the stand he defined his nickname, The Outlaw, as “a hard charger who races to the front, gave his all and did it his way.” But he also called his Dover time trial “mediocre,” as it made an already tough road to a second career title even tougher. After starting the Chase ranked 10th among 16 drivers, Busch sank to 15th after his 36th-place showing in the 10-race series’ second race, at Loudon, N.H., on Sept. 21. To give himself the best chance of making the next cut, which would eliminate four drivers from championship contention, Busch would have to win at Dover—something he hadn’t done since 2011.
After his day to forget on Dover's Monster Mile, Busch repaired to his motor coach in the speedway infield, he said, for an evening of quiet and cloistered decompression. To help that effort along, he fired up the Brad Pitt vehicle Seven Years in Tibet. He described the movie, in which a Nazi mountain climbing enthusiast befriends a young Dalai Lama, as “spiritual” and “a moving experience,” adding that it “allowed me to draw certain conclusions about my own life story.”
On the heels of that drama came another. It opened, Busch said, with a just-checking-in text from Driscoll—a gesture that struck him as odd. He explained how, a week earlier, while driving from Loudon to a romantic New England getaway, he and Driscoll had had a discussion. It began with Busch at the wheel of a rental car, venting his frustration about his poor finish at Loudon, and settled onto the subject of the future of their relationship.
At one point in this discussion, which Busch stopped just short of calling a fight, he said he ripped off the rental car’s rearview mirror, cracking the windshield. Furthermore, he said this in a way that made him seem less like a man who was seeing red than one who simply doesn’t know his own strength. “I was surprised at the damage it caused,” he said.
According to Busch, the incident triggered a diversion in their course and led the couple to Boston's Logan Airport. He said that Driscoll dropped him there and sped off before he could gather his belongings. The sudden abandonment, as Busch portrayed it, settled a long-raging internal debate about whether to break up with Driscoll. He said he dashed off via text what he intended to be his final words to her: “Goodbye forever.”
A week of radio silence ensued before Driscoll reached out to Busch on that movie night at Dover, opening a new line of communication that occurred almost exclusively over text. A transcript of this back and forth was entered into evidence, and it covered almost a month of correspondence. On the stand, Busch gave the impression that he meant to shut down their dialogue, but his texts outnumber Driscoll’s and include entreaties for her to call him. He characterized the tone of his messages as sarcastic—a tone he had no trouble reproducing on the stand. A sampling of some of the texts, quoted for the record, include:
“Your timing is impeccable.”
“I’m crying, laying on the floor, watching ‘Seven Years in Tibet.’”
“[The world] is down on top of me.”
In other responses—like this one: “You always seem to know at all times how I am, where I am and what I’ve been doing”—Busch’s intended curtness appears to be shifting to something resembling paranoia. When his motor coach door swung open hours later, as he lay, he said, sleeping in the nude in his bedroom at the aft end of the coach, “I was alarmed, frightened,” he testified. “I said, Who the f--- is here?” According to his account, Driscoll came “storming into the bedroom” area with her nine-year-old son, Houston, insisting that the driver “have the balls” to “tell him [the relationship is over].” Twice, Busch said, without covering himself he walked the boy toward the front of the coach to watch TV so the grown-ups could talk. He characterized Driscoll as angry, confused about their relationship status, and desperate to know if it was the pressure of his new job or the presence of another woman that threatened to drive them apart.
Moments later, said Busch, who is 5' 11", he found himself standing in front of the five-foot Driscoll in an area between his bed and a wall that wasn’t more than two feet wide, looking her in the eyes and telling her “you have to leave.” He insisted that this was one of five times he asked her to go. But in this particular instance, Busch said, he gently cupped her cheeks in his hands—a gesture he took great pains to demonstrate on himself while on the witness stand. When Hardin tried to cut off his client’s attempts to elaborate on this scene, Busch insisted on continuing in order to clarify Driscoll’s “fabrication of what happened.”
The overall encounter in the coach he said lasted all of 10 minutes and ended with Driscoll calling him a “p---- and a coward” before adding that this matter “was far from over.” Busch then locked his door and cut the lights. “I don’t know where they went and I did not care,” he said.
Driscoll remembered that Friday evening much differently. No detail stood out to her more than the one that made headlines when the news of her protection petition broke into a practice session for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 in Phoenix on Nov. 9: the physical confrontation. She maintained that Busch grabbed her by the throat with his left hand and “choked me,” and with his opposite hand palming her face “smashed my head into the wall three times.” In fact, she couldn’t retell this part of the story without dissolving into sobs. “It happened so fast,” she said of the alleged incident, which concluded, she said, with her calling Busch “a piece of s--- and a coward.”
Early during Driscoll’s two-day, 6½-hour time on the witness stand, her tears flowed freely as Hardin repeatedly pressed her for her version of this part of the story. They didn’t really slow until the second hour, when Hardin moved on from making Driscoll relive the alleged attack to questioning her decision to take selfies of the red bruises on her neck—which were also entered into evidence. His attempts to paint Driscoll as a trespasser who may have gotten what she deserved touched off the hearing’s most intense exchange.
“Would you agree that if you had done what he asked you to do, none of this would have happened?” Hardin asked about Busch’s claim of making repeated requests that Driscoll leave his coach.
“What’s wrong with you?” Driscoll cried in reply. “How do you sleep at night?!”
She maintained that she was the furthest thing from a guest in Busch's motor coach, let alone an unwelcome one. She considered the tour bus, the boarding option of choice for drivers on race weekends, to be a common nesting area. Another was her home in Ellicott City, Md., which is where the couple spent much of their downtime during their four-year dating relationship. She said that while in Maryland Busch effectively treated Houston as his stepson, ferrying him to school, helping him with homework and attending parent-teacher conferences. On race days, Busch and Houston could be observed walking out together during driver introductions wearing matching firesuits. Inside the coach, the boy had his own bunk and drawers for his toys.
Driscoll had a presence there, too. She said she kept clothes and other personal effects on board and had the door key code that allowed her and Houston to come and go as they pleased—which they did for some 36 weeks of the NASCAR season. She also said that she hadn’t planned to drop in on Busch on the evening of Sept. 26, but then his text replies streamed in. To her, they read less like the glib one-liners of a dry wit than the rantings of man at his emotional brink—especially the entries in which Busch appeared to hint at aborting his NASCAR career and said, according to Driscoll’s protection order petition, that he “wished he had a gun so he could kill himself.”
She considered those responses along with a blowup she had witnessed in New Hampshire, where, she said, Busch had “melted down” on his team after the qualifying session, upbraiding Stewart-Haas president Joe Custer and calling crew chief Daniel Knost “a f------ idiot”. (For the last three races of the season Knost was reassigned to Danica Patrick’s car and her crew chief, Tony Gibson, worked with Busch.) Driscoll also testified to seeing Busch unload on his coach driver, Mike Doncheff. The sprawling tantrum, she said, earned Busch a talking-to from Stewart-Haas team manger Eddie Jarvis.
Driscoll said she feared that Busch had sunk into a deeper funk and turned to drinking for succor—a disaster scenario for a driver she said has struggled to stay “on the wagon” and was on prescription medication to regulate his mood. (Busch, for his part, said he makes a regular practice of not drinking on the weekends; years ago he’d admitted to seeking professional counseling for anger management.) When Driscoll further volunteered that Busch’s mother had suggested that he be admitted to an outpatient rehab facility during the offseason, Hardin cut in again with an outburst of his own: “Why don’t you just call a press conference and say every bad thing about him!”
By far the biggest surprise to emerge from Driscoll’s testimony was her claim that the evening of Sept. 26 was not the first occasion on which Busch had roughed her up. During their fateful car ride to Logan, she said, he hit her in the thigh while ripping down the rearview mirror and wrapped her seatbelt around her neck in an attempt to strangle her—an allegation that drew an audible scoff from Busch. There was another incident at Busch’s home in Mooresville, N.C., in the summer of 2012, Driscoll said—though she did not go into the specifics. She claimed that Busch fled the premises after she threatened to go to the police; she ultimately did not, telling him at the time that she preferred he “come back and deal” with the situation. By way of an apology, she added, Busch said his flare-up “fit with a [personal] history of abuse.”
Despite all of this, Driscoll asserted time and again that she never thought Busch was capable of doing what she is certain he did to her in Dover. After grabbing her son—who, in her version of events, she plopped in front of the TV at a distance from the discord—Driscoll said she made a beeline from Busch’s bus to the coach of Nick Terry, a chaplain for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, whom she described as a counsel to Busch “through tough times.” According to her, she sat with Terry and his wife for about an hour, holding a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts to her head and popping Ibuprofen while Houston watched movies in an adjoining room with the Terrys’ children. Then she and Houston drove back home, arriving around 1 a.m.
A month would pass before Driscoll lodged her formal complaint. The delay raised an obvious question: Why didn’t she report it then?
On the offensive
Answering that question, however, required some effort and Hardin was only too happy to make it. The hearing offered a rare up-close view of the star defense attorney who embattled sports stars seem to keep on speed dial. Along with Busch, Hardin’s all-time client list includes Adrian Peterson (who is facing charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child and serving out an indefinite NFL suspension, which Hardin appealed and lost), ex-Houston Rocket Calvin Murphy (whom Hardin successfully defended against child sexual assault charges), and former MLB pitcher Roger Clemens (who was cleared of Congressional perjury charges following his testimony in hearings on PED use in sports).
A tall septuagenarian with a pile of gray hair, Hardin takes a homespun approach to litigation that makes him seem like Matlock's long lost cousin. He flubs dates, times, calls text messages “emails” and once referred to Driscoll’s son, Houston, as “Austin.” He feigns politeness with phrases like, “Let’s say that’s the truth” or “This will go quicker if you help me out.” He notices when the stenographer is straining to hear and invites witnesses to speak into the microphone even though he sometimes doesn’t do so himself. With no jury to win over, Hardin seized every opportunity to ingratiate himself with commissioner Jones—most memorably on the point of recess. “Whatever you want to do, commissioner, is fine with me,” Hardin said, coating his charm in a drawl that blends North Carolina (his native state) and Texas (his home base). Close your eyes and you’ll think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is talking.
Still, the attorney’s silver tongue is not without its sharp edges. Most often, he used it to prod Driscoll in a bid to recast her as a combative and henpecking spouse who would sooner attack Busch herself than drop her guard. To drive this point home, he directed the commissioner to an eight-minute video called Pocket Commando. The “sizzle reel,” as it was referred to in court, which was created by a production company as part of a pitch to Driscoll for a reality series based on her life, shows her firing an automatic rifle at a shooting range while dressed in camouflage-print pants, burying motion sensors along the Arizona-Mexico border, and describing herself as someone “with the reputation for not being the nicest person in the world.” (Rather curiously, the video was posted to TMZ within 30 minutes of being entered into evidence with remarks from Busch insiders.)
Driscoll’s media savvy was a theme that Hardin returned to often, believing it spoke to a “disingenuous, calculated and mercenary” nature—to borrow words from the opening remarks of Busch’s deputy counsel, James Liguori. Still, Hardin seemed to be persuading himself of the argument as he went along. First, he dismissed Driscoll’s role in rehabilitating the Kurt Busch brand, one that has suffered from his many well-documented run-ins with his fellow drivers and the motor sports press. Then Hardin directed the court to a crucial piece of evidence: an email that Driscoll sent to two of Tony Stewart’s top consiglieri—Eddie Jarvis, a partner in Stewart’s sprint car franchise, and SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli—offering strategic advice on how to steer public opinion after Stewart’s fatal Aug. 9 run-in with Ward at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. One idea: discredit the deceased.
Some time later, Driscoll received a text from Zipadelli’s wife, Nanette, essentially confirming that Driscoll's suggestion was used while complaining that Driscoll hadn’t received enough credit for it. On Sept. 25, in an addendum to the news that a grand jury had declined to indict Stewart for wrongdoing, the Ontario County (N.Y.) district attorney’s office released a toxicology report revealing that Ward was under the influence of marijuana on the night he was killed.
Driscoll’s attorney, the bespectacled Carolyn McNeice, matched Hardin for passive aggression. In three particularly memorable instances over the course of the two-day hearing, she referred to her client as “Mrs. Busch.” It’s difficult to say whether this was a Freudian slip or part of a larger strategy to establish the relationship between Busch and Driscoll as more significant than boyfriend-girlfriend, but it definitely contributed to the hearing’s Kramer vs. Kramer tone.
So too, for that matter, did the testimony from Driscoll’s neighbor, a kindly, 43-year-old, raven-haired woman named Waleska Rodriguez, who described herself as a friend and sometime employee of Driscoll’s. What Rodriguez lacked in English fluency (she refused an offer for an interpreter), she more than made up for with a command of her sentiment about the relationship between Busch and Driscoll. Although she said that she liked Busch personally, calling him “kind” and “a nice person,” she described his relationship with Driscoll as unhealthy—never more so than “when he had a bad race.” Rodriguez said she witnessed many arguments between the two, including one over Busch’s excessive drinking. She even recalled collecting spent bottles of beer from around Driscoll’s home. This, Rodriguez said, eventually led to a Driscoll-initiated change in Busch’s drinking habits—one she did her best to accommodate by not serving alcohol during the couples’ frequent visits to her home.
Rodriguez said she was so troubled by the relationship, including Driscoll’s disclosure of the alleged 2012 attack, that she suggested to Driscoll that they break up—an option, she said, that Driscoll was also considering. “Hey! Wake up!” is one way Rodriguez said she put it. After she herself was roused in the small hours after the alleged Dover attack by a text from Driscoll asking her to come over, Rodriguez said she found her friend bawling to the point of incomprehension. Driscoll’s face and neck, she claimed, were covered in red, dark spots (“How you say…bruises?”) that only seemed to get worse in the many subsequent days that she saw her.
The credibility that Rodriguez demonstrated on the stand was in marked contrast to that of the coach driver Michael Doncheff—a stocky 57-year-old who is admittedly gullible (“My problem is I believe everybody,” he said on the stand) and ostensibly intimidated rather easily. He seemed especially frightened by Driscoll, characterizing her as a taskmaster who heaped all manner of domestic chores on him. One of the few he said he handled with gusto was making sure that weekly deliveries of cases of Budweiser beer never made it onto the bus. “We’d typically use it as trade for favors,” said Doncheff, while explaining how he redistributed this bounty to track officials and gatekeepers. This prompted a deadpan interjection from the commissioner: “So beer to NASCAR is what prison cigarettes used to be?”
The exchange, which drew the biggest laugh of the hearing, was one of the few candid moments in Doncheff’s testimony. Otherwise, he mostly contradicted himself. When asked whether he had ever seen Busch drink, Doncheff replied "No" before confessing to seeing Busch enjoy half a glass of wine over dinner. In one breath, Doncheff painted Driscoll as a horrible boss (albeit with gentle strokes) who once texted him late at night to report a butter shortage. In another, he expressed great empathy for her concern for Busch, which she spelled out to him in a separate series of text exchanges.
As it happens, it was Doncheff’s idea for Driscoll to come to Dover to see about Busch. If the well-meaning bus driver had known then what the court knows now, Doncheff probably would’ve kept that one to himself.
No happy ending
That’s the thing about couples: You never really know what’s going on with them. The bond between Busch and Driscoll was as much defined by contention as balance. They were the same age, financially independent and celebrities in their own right—Driscoll on the right-wing TV circuit. Their pairing produced a rare sight in sports: a power couple of equals.
More to the point, they carried separate ambitions that could easily be merged into one common goal. Their relationship never seemed more symbiotic than in early 2014, when Busch was attempting to race in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day—a 1,100-mile motorsports steeplechase known as “the Double.” While bidding to become just the fourth driver ever to attempt the Double, Busch trained with Houston’s karate instructor and dedicated his efforts to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—a major focus of Driscoll’s charity, the Armed Forces Foundation. Behind the scenes, Driscoll scheduled out Busch's time, meals and media appearances during the three months he spent preparing for the two races. On the 47-minute charter flight from Indianapolis to Charlotte, she was observed massaging Busch’s right foot as the racer lay reclined with his firesuit half peeled off and an IV snaking from his arm up to the ceiling while Houston stuck a similar pose across the aisle.
Whatever disagreements Busch and Driscoll had in public could have been easily chalked up to the passion that overflows when type-As clash. Early on, Driscoll hoped the incident in Dover might resolve itself—just as the others had. She believes that she could have looked past the alleged abuse if Busch had taken her up on her demand to rededicate himself to addressing his mental health issues. That’s one of the reasons she waited so long to file her complaint: She still held out hope that the relationship could be salvaged. Another was a long-raging battle between Driscoll and her ex-husband, Geoffrey Hermanstorfer, over custody of Houston. Busch said he had offered to support her emotionally and financially (despite her stated independence) during that ordeal but, like Driscoll’s mental health offer, it was taken off the table when Driscoll reported him to authorities and filed for a protection order.
Not that they seemed to need it. If anything rang true during the hearing, it’s that Busch and Driscoll do not wish to be around each other anymore, and that their parting would be the farthest thing from a clean break whether or not a protection order is granted. There remain financial matters to untangle (Busch and Driscoll share responsibility for the mortgage on the Ellicott City residence and recently started a holding company for asset acquisition) and a foundation to reorganize (Busch shut down his own upon joining AFF as a spokesman). What’s more, most of this process will happen in public.
Soon, blustery opinions about this breakup won’t be the exclusive preserve of Hardin—who, in an impromptu news conference outside of the courthouse after the hearing, castigated reporters for tweeting in the courtroom (never mind that the only devices permitted inside were pens and paper) and demeaned the public’s impulse to rush to judgment when issues of domestic violence arise. (“We’re treating this subject now as if a mere allegation should make a man or woman lose their job,” he railed.) It’s a point that had traction with one observer in the gallery—Gordon Smith, a crew-cut Delaware resident and nominal NASCAR fan (“I have no friendship with anyone involved in the Busch defense,” Smith said after slipping his business card to Busch during a recess) who was compelled to start an awareness campaign about false domestic violence allegations after he was wrongly accused 14 times by his ex-wife. Rebuttals are sure to follow from the National Organization for Women, and perhaps even the Ward family as it considers whether to pursue civil action against Stewart.
The views only figure to become more entrenched as more witnesses are called, like Busch’s assistant and Driscoll’s ex-husband—who is expected to testify in the driver’s defense. Busch, too, will reappear and recount again exactly what happened in his motor coach at Dover Speedway on the night of Friday, Sept. 26. This time, his explanation could even include a flat-out denial that he assaulted Driscoll—an assertion that Hardin says has been left out so far for tactical reasons.
Regardless of who’s telling the story, the essence—unfortunate and sad—is unlikely to change. However it ends, whenever it ends, it won’t be pretty.