The CROSS FITTEST Of Them All

The racer will go heartbeat-to-heartbeat with any elite athlete. Let Kurt Busch's Memorial Day weekend marathon between Indy and Charlotte demonstrate how
June 02, 2014

HE LOOKED like a goner. As he lay there in a tan leather chair, his flushed face was shrouded by a black cap and his black-and-red fire suit was peeled down to his waist. A catheter snaked up from his limp right arm to a saline bag dangling from the low ceiling of the Cessna Citation X. A doctor, a nurse and a priest ministered to him, as his girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, rubbed his right foot.

But this is not how it would all end for Kurt Busch on Sunday—gassed at 30,000 feet, somewhere between Indianapolis and Concord, N.C. His much-hyped racing odyssey, driving in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day, would go on. He had impressively completed the first leg of the journey, finishing sixth in his rookie appearance at Indy. He had gone from his number 26 Andretti Autosport car to a police cruiser to a helicopter to a private airport, where his parents and friends had assembled to watch a feed of the race. Had he given in to the exhaustion and dehydration aboard that plane, Busch, known as the Outlaw, would have to brace himself for a different nickname: the Quitter.

He kept going. After unplugging from the IV, which needed to dispense only 1½ liters of fluid into his system, Busch zipped up his fire suit, tugged his cap low and disembarked at Concord Regional Airport. He rushed over to another helicopter that, after a 10-minute flight, deposited him in the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield for the longest race of the Sprint Cup season.

The revivified Busch was positively strutting now. "I have to block out what's happened the last four hours," he said of his Indy 500 run. "I still have more than halfway to go. It's a fun challenge now. I've got to focus on the Cup car, get the feel of that Cup car back underneath me."

Whatever the final outcome, in powering through his high-octane doubleheader, Busch would lay to rest any vestige of the antiquated notion that a race car driver has no claim to the title of athlete.

KURT BUSCH'S mother, Gaye, never meant for her oldest son to pursue this particular athletic endeavor. During Kurt's formative years in Las Vegas, Gaye tried to steer him toward baseball. When Kurt emerged as a standout shortstop and catcher in middle school, it seemed only a matter of time until he would abandon racing. His father, Tom, would have to find another way to burn off the competitive fire that remained from his own bygone racing career on the local late-model circuit.

But in 1993, just before the 14-year-old Kurt was about to try out for the Durango High freshman baseball team, Tom bought his boy a race car chassis. "He said, 'Here's your new car,' " Busch recalls. " 'You gotta build it, and then we'll go racing.' "

Landing a Cup ride became Busch's next DIY project. He paid his dues on the legend-car and late-model circuit before Jack Roush, the owner of one of NASCAR's most dominant teams, signed him to race in the truck series, in 2000. He was rookie of the year, and when Roush presented him with a chance to race in a Cup event the day after a truck event, Busch jumped at it—even though it would be twice as long as the races he usually ran.

At the 200-mile mark of the MBNA.com 400—i.e., the finish of a truck race—Busch radioed his crew chief and, essentially, cried uncle. "The banking is 24 degrees, and I'm turning left," he recalls. "So I'm tilted to the left all the time. By the end of that race I felt like I was on flat ground driving straight up into the sky. I was just wiped out."

Fighting through the disorientation, Busch hung on to finish 18th. After six more Cup auditions that season, Busch earned a promotion in 2001. He took the new job seriously, consulting with a nutritionist and getting more fit. Three years later he pipped Jimmie Johnson for the Cup championship.

This prompted Johnson, and other drivers, to get in better shape. Today's racers—with their ripped deltoids and sculpted pecs—hardly resemble the moonshine runners and Elks club members who preceded them. While gym rats Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne charged to the front of the standings, Busch drifted from the Roush garage to the houses of Penske, Phoenix and Furniture Row. His edge was gone. He needed a lift.

Late in his climb through the minor league ranks, Busch had been offered a seat in an open-wheel car. "It was that fork in the road," Busch says, and at the time he opted for NASCAR. He found plenty of rewards along the stock car route (the 2004 Cup title, 25 career victories, $65 million in earnings), but he wondered what might have been if he had chosen the open-wheel path. "He's one of the NASCAR drivers who has always respected open-wheel drivers," says Jacques Villeneuve, a 43-year-old former Formula 1 champion and the 1995 Indy 500 winner, who placed 14th on Sunday. "Every time I saw him at a NASCAR race, he was superfriendly and respectful. And curious as well."

In 2003, Busch had turned 20 laps in one of Bobby Rahal's Indy cars at Sebring. Last spring he ran 83 test laps at the Brickyard, topping out with an impressive mark of 218.210 mph. That showing had Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti scrambling to put together sponsorship and a team around Busch for an Indy run. Those efforts didn't come together in time for Busch to make the '13 grid, but Andretti vowed to try again this year.

At the end of the 2013 season Busch would become a NASCAR free agent, and whatever stock car team he signed with could pose potential sponsorship conflicts for Andretti's team. There was also the Sprint Cup schedule to consider; a subpar performance as a result of overscheduling could have disastrous consequences on his chase for the Cup.

But he signed with NASCAR's most open-wheel-friendly team, Stewart-Haas Racing—run by three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, a 1997 Indy Racing League titlist; and Gene Haas, a machine tool builder with plans to run an F1 team in 2015. Then NASCAR revised its Chase format, expanding the field to 16 drivers from 12 and setting qualifying rules that essentially admit all regular-season race winners.

Not only did the IndyCar sponsors line up for Busch, but they were practical too: Cessna offered the plane to shuttle Busch from his home in suburban Baltimore to and from Cup events and Brickyard testing sessions. The watchmaker Basis made a timepiece that could allow him to track his vitals—his heart rate, his perspiration, his sleeping patterns—on his iPhone.

In March, Busch announced that he would attempt the double. It's a crossover attempt that harks back to a time in racing when top drivers in each discipline hopped from car to car. Last week Mario Andretti talked about that more freewheeling time—including a stretch in which he won the 12 Hours of Sebring and ran in a stock car race in Atlanta in the same weekend. "I stayed in my motel until Wednesday," he said. Andretti noted his respect for Busch: "I think this completes him more as a race driver. A lot is on the line."

Still, not even Super Mario was crazy enough to double up on the same day. Only three men have tried the Memorial Day weekend doubleheader, the last, Robby Gordon, in 2004. The only driver to complete all 1,100 miles is Stewart—universally regarded as the least athletic of his peers. By the end of the day, in '01, Stewart, whose nickname is Smoke, was running on fumes. Says Stewart, "[Kurt] understands the nutrition side of it right off the bat. That was something that I had no clue about. I didn't understand that I had to put the right foods [in] to maintain that energy all day."

In January, Busch began training with a Maryland-based karate instructor named Stanley Crump, aka Sensei Stan, who fashioned a thrice-weekly boot camp designed to replicate some of the stresses that Busch would face over the course of his long day's journeys into night. During an hourlong session at the dojo two weeks before the race, Crump threw a cluster of tasks at Busch. Among them: hold a pair of 15-pound dumbbells for two minutes to build forearm and hand strength; "chest-ups" (like pull-ups, but a notch higher), designed to make shoulder muscles stronger and more flexible; and an array of seated exercises to isolate the lower back.

"I want him to always be thinking when he's in the car about his posture," Crump says. "I tell him, 'Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Be like a carburetor. You don't want to put a Ford Escort carburetor in a Lamborghini.' "

Two years ago ESPN used a range of monitoring devices to observe NASCAR's Denny Hamlin during a four-hour race; the producers found that his heart pumped as fast as a marathon runner's (130 beats per minute) but for nearly twice as long. A readout from Busch's Basis watch showed that once he settled into his car on the Brickyard starting grid on Sunday, his heart rate—which had hovered around 80 beats per minute for much of the morning—jumped to 120 bpm and pretty much stayed there for the duration of a race that ran under the green flag for a nearly unheard-of 447.5 miles. The only fluctuation in Busch's heart rate came when it spiked to 130 bpm just after 3 p.m., right around the time 25th-place runner Townsend Bell wiped out in Turn 2 and Busch, who was following behind, dived down on the track to avoid him.

Busch's deft evasive maneuver kept him from disaster and put him in striking position of the battle being waged for the checkered flag by leaders Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay. But Busch didn't want to make the same mistake he had made in practice when he pushed his car too hard and skidded into the wall on Turn 2. In the end he brought it home in sixth place, as Hunter-Reay held off Castroneves by .3171 seconds. "Those top-five guys, to race them hard at the end, I didn't think I could mix it up with them," Busch said later. "It was as if that was all I had."

He had to dig deeper for Charlotte. Between races, along with the IV, he took a 20-minute nap, chugged a 20-ounce energy cocktail (a mixture of B12, liquid oxygen drops and beet juice) and grazed on a box of raisins and a stick of beef jerky. All this to combat an energy loss in Indy that measured 2,709 calories.

Busch might have gone the distance in Charlotte had Ricky Stenhouse Jr. not rammed him during a mid-race pit stop, busting the left rear shock on Busch's number 41 Chevy. His engine dropped two cylinders soon thereafter—causing him to fall from 15th place to a lap down, to completely out of it by Lap 271. After almost 10 hours on the road Busch's journey rolled to a stop in front of his team hauler about 200 miles short. Said Busch, "I wish tonight could've gone better."

But Busch is now the front-runner to be named IndyCar rookie of the year. What's more, he's open to doubling down again in 2015. "Today is a memory I'll have forever," he says. "It was a grand stage to stand on and represent NASCAR." And racing athletes everywhere.

"I have to block out what's happened the last four hours," Busch said of his Indy 500 run. "I still have more than halfway to go. It's a fun challenge now."

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Driving Force

The stakes in racing are greater than ever, and so are the physical demands on racers—from massive g-forces and extreme temperatures to relentless sensory bombardment—spurring many drivers to rev up their fitness programs. To prepare for his grueling Indy-Charlotte double, former NASCAR Cup champ Kurt Busch took on karate instructor Stanley Crump and embarked on a boot-camp-style program designed to mimic the challenge of racing 1,100 miles.

GO TO THE WHIP

Battling the wheel for hundreds of miles demands great forearm and wrist strength—so Busch learned the ropes.

DON'T SIT TIGHT

Core isolation exercises developed the correct posture crucial to sustaining efficient breathing and relaxation.

SHOULDER THE LOAD

Crump (right) gave Busch exercises to strengthen his shoulders and back to combat fatigue from cornering.

TAKE THE LUNGE

A driver has to do more than just stomp the gas. These exercises helped Busch develop strength, endurance and flexibility.

PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated12:07 P.M. PIT START Preparation done, Busch eases into the cockpit of his Indy car as Driscoll and her son, Houston Hermanstorfer, look on. FOUR PHOTOSPhotographs by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated10:20 A.M. OFF TO THE RACES After morning Mass, and limbering up in his fire suit in the team hauler, Busch made his first start in the Indy 500. Running up front till the end, he would finish as the race's top rookie, in sixth place. PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated11:04 A.M.[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated2:15 P.M.[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports IllustratedTRANSITION GAME With 500 racing miles behind him, Busch let someone else drive on the way to North Carolina, as he grabbed a nap and some mid-air refueling. By touchdown in Concord, he was ready for round 2. PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated4:22 P.M.[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated4:46 P.M.[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated4:52 P.M. END OF THE ROAD Choppering over Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch looked down at the familiar NASCAR scene. Busch's fine-tuned body would outlast his car, as a blown engine sent him to the hauler after 400 miles. PHOTOCHRIS KEANE/AP (CAR)9:05 P.M.[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated9:28 P.M.[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)