NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA, Grand-Am, Champ Car -- he's running out of adventures.
Sure, it wasn’t on such an enormous stage, and it wasn’t quite as fast, and it lasted less than seven seconds. But those who think that former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch’s foray into IndyCar racing – ending with a stellar sixth-place finish in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 – was the first time he has raced far outside his comfort zone are wrong.
On March of 2011, when he was still racing a Dodge Charger for Team Penske in NASCAR, he took advantage of a rare off-weekend to attempt to qualify for, and compete in, the National Hot Rod Association Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.
There are three main Pro car classes in the NHRA – Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. With their nitro-burning, 8,000-horsepower supercharged engines, Top Fuel and Funny Car get most of the publicity, but diehard drag race fans will tell you that the best competition is Pro Stock, where a tenth of a second can separate the fastest from the slowest car in the field.
Since only 16 cars qualify per class, Pro Stock also sends more cars and drivers home than the other two, which often struggle to get 16 entries. The Pro Stock “doorslammers” – so named because they actually have working doors – are meant to resemble consumer cars, but believe me, that’s where the similarity ends. Even though I had an NHRA SuperComp license, as well as an SCCA Pro and a Grand-Am license, my attempt years ago to test a Pro Stock remains my most humbling driving experience ever.
A blink-of-an-eye lapse in reaction time can send you to the trailer early, and you don’t have 8,000 horses to make up for it. You also have to shift manually. The owner of the Pro Stock I drove forgot to tell me I had to keep my hand on the shift lever – I didn’t and blew the transmission. I needed both hands plus about three more just to drive the car.
And at the Gatornationals, Busch and his Shell-backed Dodge were in trouble from his first practice session. In the end, he managed to get one clean run and qualify 12th. Indeed, the fastest and the slowest of the 16 qualifiers were separated by less than a tenth of a second. Five cars didn’t qualify.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that fellow Dodge racer Allen Johnson supplied Busch’s car and helped coach him – champion Johnson knows as much about Pro Stock as anybody.
So when Busch, the 12th qualifier, lined up against Erica Enders (now Enders-Stevens, she got married), the fourth fastest, Busch was at a disadvantage. But he made her work for the win – she ran 6.538 seconds at 211.69 mph, to Busch’s 6.541 at 211.59 mph. As expected, the difference was off the line – she edged him by an eye-blink.
She is, incidentally, the current points leader in the NHRA Pro Stock division.
I asked Busch what he was taking back to NASCAR from the experience, and he said “the fan-friendliness – the access the fans have to the drivers and the teams.” NHRA advertises that “every ticket is a pit pass,” and drivers do go out of their way to sign as many autographs as possible, shake as many hands as they can, even superstars like John Force.
And a few weeks ago, I asked Erica Enders-Stevens about the experience, given Busch’s then-announced intention to try Indy. “He should do well,” she said. “He’s a fast learner, and a very good driver.”
He also went out of his way to be friendly and accessible at the Gatornationals, so it seemed that much more surprising to casual fans when, eight months later, his petulant rant aimed at ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch in the pits of the season-ending NASCAR race at Homestead-Miami Speedway helped cost him his Penske ride for 2012.
At Indy, it was again The Good Kurt, and he was a splendid ambassador for stock car racing, and a good example of the level of talent the top NASCAR racers have.
So Busch has done stock cars, IndyCars, dragsters and sports cars, having already competed in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in 2005 and in 2008, when he finished third overall with co-drivers Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. He even tested a Bobby Rahal’s Champ Car at Sebring in 2003. What’s next?
It’ll be interesting to see. Kurt Busch is a serial racer, and that’s a compliment.