Kurt Busch: "We have to work a lot harder for our dollar"

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Kurt Busch, No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS met with media and discussed his trip to Barrett-Jackson, race car drivers salaries compared to other athletes, crew chief, Daniel Knost, and more.

WHAT’S YOUR BEST ADVICE FOR THE UP AND COMING YOUNG DRIVERS?

“Yeah, there are a lot of rookies that are going to be out there. And as a rookie, I remember just trying to do everything too fast and it’s a matter of digesting what’s around you and knowing your surroundings. You can wreck really easy as a rookie and you get out there slip-sliding around and when you wipe out somebody else, it affects a great deal of people that were involved. I guess the biggest thing is to just respect the responsibility.”

WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR WORK ETHIC?

Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Covy Moore

“My dad instilled it in me; a blue-collared guy that was an auto mechanic and then a tools salesman. And when I first started racing, it was a car that we just bought as a chassis. And he said if you build it, you can race it. So, then we had to get the rear-end, the control arms, the motor, the wiring.

“And so he taught me everything about the car, which gave me a better understanding of the amount of work and time that it takes to build something and then to respect it when you have it. And so, you’ve got to get up early and you’ve got to stay late if you’re going to be successful.”

DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST WHEELS AS A KID?

“Oh, my dad gave me a plastic truck to gnaw on and chew on before I even had teeth. So it was always about cars with him. Mom, she loved baseball, and so I played baseball a lot as a kid, but cars, all the time. There was always a car in the garage.”

DO YOU HAVE AN UPDATE ON THE INDY 500?

“No update. No news to change or report different. But it’s still on the radar and I can feel it. It’s like I can almost grasp it, but I don’t have both hands on it yet.”

DO YOU HAVE A TIME TABLE AS TO WHEN YOU’D LIKE TO HAVE IT DONE?

“I would love to have it done already. But there is no timetable. The month of May is still a long ways away and there’s still good time to prepare and to find people to do it, even if the team has to field a second or a third or even a fifth car.”

WHAT DID YOU BUY AT BARRETT-JACKSON?

“I got a Shelby Cobra, 1965.”

IS IT ALL BLACK?

“Yes.”

WHY THAT PARTICULAR CAR? DID YOU PAY $150,000?

“One hundred. I stole it; yeah, I got it for a hundred (thousand). This trip to Barrett-Jackson, the focus was with the Armed Forces Foundation and Cessna supporting the foundation with two vehicles, an airplane, a C-19, and a military truck. And there is a great deal of responsibility when you come in as a seller. And then your advertising and the dinners and the entertainment; and then there is a different responsibility as a buyer, as well, with doing your research.

“And so to talk about the Cobra that I bought, it was the best situation for my father to come out there as his first Barrett-Jackson trip, and one of my long-time employees, which is my best friend from racing when I was a kid, he helped volunteer on my dad’s race cars and he was out there. He’s a car guy. He’s a car nut. So to have him and my dad and myself going around looking at cars, researching them, and then predicting what ones would get sold for. And we found this Cobra. We had our eye on it because it had matching numbers. It’s a ’65 Shelby Cobra. Traditional paint is blue with white striping. I’ve got a Ford GT that was given to me by Edsel Ford when I won the championship. And I made that Ford GT blue and white. So this GT just had this look, this cool look about it being all black, gloss black. My dad loves black cars. I’ve been getting into a lot of black cars lately, and it was something we bought as a family and friend.

“It just had that vibe. It had that feel. And we added-up all the receipts we could add up and we would have spent $125,000 if we were going to build that car ourselves. And that’s not including labor. So we had $125,000 as the line in the sand as to what we were going to pay for that car, and it stalled-out at 95. I threw down a hundred, they dropped the hammer and said sold, and we were like oh my gosh, we have a car. And we think we stole. You can’t say ‘steal’ and it was a great deal.

“The seller shook our hand. And the seller was Goudin Ford from Las Vegas, Nevada. Where I’m from, it was the biggest dealership in Vegas and it was the guy’s personal Cobra that he put a lot of heart and soul into. And he’s like; you’ve got a great car. I’ve got all these matching receipts to go with it. Congratulations. So it’s neat when the seller shakes your hand, and you know you got a good deal on a car. So, I told my dad when it lands back in North Carolina, he’s the first one to take it out for a drive. It was a good fun family story. Sorry I took too long.”

WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTING TO SEE IN TONY STEWART WHEN HE GETS BACK IN THE CAR AFTER HIS LEG INJURY?

“I know he’s been waiting for this day for months. The rehabilitation, the physical therapy, the questions, the answers, the anticipation; I can’t wait for him to sit in that seat. I’m going to go shake his hand and say welcome back. And you’ll watch him drive out there and he’ll be happy again. He’s going to be the same old Tony, like we never missed him from before.”

HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE SALARIES OF RACE CAR DRIVERS TO THOSE OF OTHER PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES?

“Great question. To be as accurate as I can be without inserting my own foot in my own mouth, we are all independent contractors in the world of NASCAR, in the world of motorsports. And so as an independent contractor, there are two solid ways to make money and that is off of performance and purse money as well as your marketing ability and to sell sponsors or to attract sponsors; whereas, in other sports they have unions. The unions protect the contracts of those players and even if you get hurt, you still get paid if you’re in baseball, basketball, and football and maybe even hockey. It’s in the same category where the unions help their athletes.

“We don’t have that. And so it’s a different atmosphere. We have to work a lot harder for our dollar. But at the same time, there’s that freedom of being an independent contractor and not necessarily having to answer to anybody in particular other than the sponsor or your team owner. So, there is good, bad, and different. I enjoy the world of NASCAR. It’s a world that you have to pinch yourself sometimes because you are getting paid to race a car 200 mph. Is it a dangerous sport? It’s as dangerous as football is, in putting a helmet on and knowing that there are side affects that come along with playing a contact sport.

“Could the money be greater in the fact that we don’t receive, as drivers, a dollar of any of the ticket sales? I’ve never really received a dollar from all of the ticket sales I’ve seen. I’ve signed thousands of tickets from Bristol over the years of the times that I’ve won there, and it says $85 bucks on it, usually. Right? That’s a cheap seat. And are the drivers receiving any of that? Well, it’s probably through the purse money, but there’s a lot of money that exchanges hands. I guess at the end of the day, drivers, team owners, crew members, the Southeastern region is a better place because of the world of NASCAR. And we have a lot to be thankful for.”

WOULD IT BE EXCITING TO BE INVOLVED IN FORMULA 1?

“Oh, absolutely. Haas is a unique, eclectic individual, and when he says he’s going to do something, he means it. I’m a beneficiary of that with him signing me on for this fourth team at Stewart-Haas. The money in Formula 1 though, is astronomical. When you talk about $30 million to run a Cup team, it’s $300 million over there. So, you just throw on another zero. There’s a lot that goes into it. A guy like him, though, the way Gene Haas thinks is hey, I don’t need to get into motor building. I’m just going to rent motors from Hendrick Motorsports because that’s going to take $50 million or so to do and to develop. So, what does he think in his mind? Well, nobody’s got a wind tunnel. Everybody needs a wind tunnel. So he goes and builds a $40 million wind tunnel. What I’m getting at is the guy can drop the dime and go play with the big dogs and he’s got the coin to spend in Formula 1 if he want’s to go and do it.”

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED SINCE YOU MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT LAST AUGUST TO KNOW AS FAR AS WHAT THE NUCLEUS IS GOING TO BE SURROUNDING YOU ONCE YOU GET ON THE TRACK TOMORROW? TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED ABOUT DANIEL (KNOST, CREW CHIEF). “Well it’s been an evolution since July when I first talked to Gene Haas about his vision to start this fourth team. Then to go through the Chase working with the No. 78 guys and being on the outside of what was going on for development, but then once the off-season came then I could give it my full attention. By that time we had Daniel Knost in place as the crew chief. We had different crew members lining up, they had pit crew guys training and it’s been a nice evolution to watch the No. 41 car mature into the spot that it’s in today. The spot that it’s in today is a championship caliber team that has some inexperienced guys in certain situations, but it has very experienced guys in other positions on the team. So it’s an exciting time to have a shot at winning the Daytona 500 because Gene Haas expects Haas Automation and his brand to be competitive right away. His big thing is he just wants to win. He wants that hardware from Victory Lane and at the same time we have a regular season to develop as a team to be ready for the Chase when it starts.”

HAVE YOU TESTED A LOT WITH DANIEL (KNOST) IN THE OFF-SEASON? ARE YOU STARTING TO LEARN HIM? “Last night was perfect. We went to dinner. I took the lead engineer, the crew chief and our assistant engineer, the three guys that sit in the hauler. Between us four we are the ones arriving at the set-up and the responsibility of this No. 41 cars success. There are crew members everywhere that add to this, but us four are the ones pulling the trigger on what set-ups and Daniel’s level of comfort and his level of confidence I think is the biggest word that I have seen develop every week during the off season. He is perfect. He’s ready and it’s a nice feeling to have him ready to go and have a fresh crew chiefs outlook. With the point’s structure this year, with the qualifying procedures this year, with the new no ride height rule and how a car has got to get through technical inspection, you almost want a brand new guy that has the least amount of experience to go off of trends, because this year there are no trends right now.”

IS THE PERCENTAGE LEVEL GONE UP SINCE YOU SAID A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO YOU WERE 70 PERCENT SURE YOU WOULD RUN INDY? “It’s still that percentage, which is a good sign. If I was a weather man I would say bring an umbrella (laughs). But there is nothing new to report or change.”

THERE WON’T BE A MANUFACTURER ISSUE IF YOU DO RUN FOR A HONDA TEAM? “You know we are talking with Chevrolet programs. There is a Honda team in the mix and that is a hurdle that we have to overcome. We have to do it the right way. I respect Chevrolet’s involvement in the NASCAR world and that is 99 percent of the focus this year. So that one percent we hope is not a problem.”

YOU MENTIONED THE RIDE HEIGHT HOW DOES THAT CHANGE WHAT YOU DO OR WHAT YOUR STYLE MIGHT BE? HOW IS THAT GOING TO IMPACT YOU SPECIFICALLY? “The easiest way to explain the new ride height rule is that we can lower the cars as far as we want to go. We can raise it as high as we want to go. To me the cars are going to create an identity for themselves similar to a sports car where you see like the BMW’s or you see the Audi’s, the sedans that race on road courses they have very stiff suspension. I see our cars heading that direction because you want to control the ride height at the lowest level possible. I’m hearing teams are ordering very stiff springs from the different spring manufacturers which backs up that theory. We are going to be lowering our cars and riding stiff springs. What will that do in traffic? That is going to be the side effect on how stiff do you go versus the grip level in the tires.”

HOW MORE DIFFICULT DOES THAT MAKE YOUR JOB? “It makes it very difficult. You have trends for specific tracks, but at the same time we don’t know what our final set-up is going to be and with Phoenix only a couple of weeks away we still have that question mark over our head on how we need to set the car up heading into that race.”

YOU HAVE SO MUCH TIME INVESTED WITH ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT SO IF YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO DO IT WITH THEM HOW MUCH DOES THAT KIND OF BRING YOU BACK A LITTLE BIT? “Well it’s a matter of loyalty. I have tried to pride myself in being as loyal as I can be to a program or an individual throughout my career. When they give you, Andretti Autosport, a chance to drive an IndyCar and do your rookie test that is who you want to invest into if you are going to do a race. So that is where I would lean if I was going to make a decision. If I had two equal opportunities or maybe Andretti was a little less I would say the Andretti group, having his guidance and his expertise and his knowledge, you can’t find a better name in the world of IndyCar other than a guy like Penske or something like that.”

WHEN HE (MICHAEL ANDRETTI) SWITCHED TO HONDA DID THAT KIND OF IN YOUR MIND MAKE YOU WONDER IF YOU WOULD BE ABLE TO DO THIS? “Yeah I heard about that last fall when they raced Fontana. I was like ‘oof’ how is that going to impact the future. That is where you have to hire good lawyers, but at the end of the day you have to do the right thing. The right thing for me as a NASCAR Cup champion is to focus on the Cup car.”

THIS WILL BE THE 10TH SEASON FOR YOUR BROTHER IN THE NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES. HOW HAVE YOU SEEN HIM EVOLVE AND CHANGE? WHAT DO YOU SEE THAT IS SIMILAR FROM THE KYLE FROM 10 YEARS AGO? “He has done a tremendous job to battle the greats in our sport and to do it at an elite level like he has year after year to race as much as he does. He races Nationwide, Truck, Cup; he has got over 100 wins in the three series combined. He has an amazing work ethic and he has a very high success rate. What we have to do is find that last percentage point it seems like. It seems like he is 99 percent there and I think he gained a percentage point last year by completing the Chase, by going through it all the way.”

THAT WAS KIND OF A BIG THING FOR HIM THAT HE DIDN’T GIVE UP… “Yeah, as soon as you were eliminated in a sense he felt like he gave up. Well, no you can’t do that Kyle you’ve got to continue to push all the way through and if others have problems then you capitalize on that. Even if they don’t have problems you still have to do it for yourself.”

HOW DID HE GET TO THOSE RESULTS? HOW DID HE NOT GIVE UP? WHAT WERE THINGS HE WAS DOING THAT MAYBE HE HADN’T DONE IN THE PAST? “I think he hit the reset button after Kansas and said ‘this is still about consistency and running well’ which you have to post results better than seventh in the Chase every week if you are going to win this thing. There are certain things you do to get in the Chase and there are certain things you have to do in the Chase. I think he found that after he had that trouble in Kansas.”

WAS THAT A SIMPLE LESSON OR IS THAT HARDER THAN WHAT PEOPLE MIGHT THINK TO LEARN? “Every driver is a little different. I mean I’m his brother, I would probably know him best and it’s when you are defeated after you put 30 plus weekends throughout the year together and to have your shot at the championship now thinner than what it was before it's as if you are not giving that full effort. So you always hope that your Chase starts off strong and that you are able to not have to play catch up and the moment that he was playing catch up he gave up. I think now that even if he is down a little bit he is not going to give up now.”

I HAVE BEEN TALKING TO A LOT OF DRIVERS ASKING IF THEY CONSIDERED GOING TO COLLEGE AFTER FINISHING HIGH SCHOOL. I BELIEVE YOU STARTED COLLEGE BUT FAILED TO FINISH THAT SEEMS TO BE THE CASE OF MANY OF THE DRIVERS. I WAS WONDERING WHAT HAPPENED? DID YOU JUST DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO FOCUS ON RACING FULL TIME? “The best story I have is when I was leaving my dorm on a Friday after classes my Resident Assistant is standing there with his arms folded a few times going ‘where are you going’? I said ‘well I’m headed to Phoenix this weekend’ because I went to school in Tucson or I said ‘hey I’m going to L.A. because the South West Tour is racing at Orange Show Speedway. He goes ‘when are you going to give up on this racing thing and worry about your school work?’ He is a junior in college and he is trying to be a guidance and a mentor counselor and literally the books were on the back seat of my car as I was heading down the freeway chasing down my dream of racing cars. It’s hard to balance both. You have to stay involved in motorsports. You are always looking for that opportunity to break through. What ends up being sacrificed is the study time.”

DO YOU EVER THINK YOU MIGHT GO BACK? “Probably not, there are so many things that you learn in life afterwards that they school of hard knocks happens out on the road and in life. I’m not the one for the books in a sense. I mean I got good grades in High School, but I felt like I learned more in life when I was outside of school.”

HOW MANY SEMESTERS? “I did about five semester’s total. Some at UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) some at the community college back in Vegas. Three semester’s at University of Arizona.”

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Article type Interviews
Tags chevrolet, daytona, kurt busch, nascar-cup