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Pedley: Enough Was Enough For The Captain

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 6 2011

Kurt Busch apparently has talked himself out of one of the top rides in NASCAR. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

A couple of years back, an old friend in racing suddenly disappeared from a job he had landed with the team for which Kurt Busch was driving.

When next I ran into that person, an old racing hand who been through the wars, I asked; what up?

The normally low-key guy pulled me to a quiet corner of the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center, looked down at our feet and shook his head. “Can’t work with that kid,” he said.

That made my friend a member of an increasing large frat. One that has grown by an entire Sprint Cup team over the past several months.

On Monday, one business day after the post-season awards banquet, word came down that Busch’s team owner for the last six seasons has joined the frat in which the hazing process can be long, embarrassing, aggravating and, finally, intolerable.

Busch’s departure from Penske Racing is being described by those involved as a mutual kind of thing. But common sense screams that no driver would voluntarily leave one of the best organizations in all of American racing with no gig in hand at a time like this – a time like this being; just weeks before pre-season testing, in the middle of a recession, in an era of contraction and of long lines of employment

Steve Addington left Penske Racing and Kurt Busch on his own. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

seekers at race shop doors.

Going out on a limb here: In actuality, Roger Penske decided to say no thank you sir, I don’t want another. It seems obvious that The Captain, as honorable a man who has ever walked the garages and paddocks, has also decided, “Just can’t work with that kid.”

The decision to boot Busch from the seat of the No. 22 Penske Sprint Cup Dodge, one would assume, was given a final nudge by the driver’s behavior in the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.

Behavior caught on amateur video which featured Busch carpet bombing ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch with “Fs” and “MFs” and just plain old vitriolic anger.

Busch had just suffered a mechanical malfunction which sent him to the garages where the emotional malfunction occurred. Punch approached for an interview. The two stood waiting for ESPN to go live to the interview. When that took too long for Busch, it was bombs away.

The amateur video went viral and the apologies were, pro forma, rolled out. Then came word over the weekend that Busch had agreed to meet with a sports psychologist.

Then came Monday.

The feelings here about Busch losing his ride at Penske – and perhaps, everywhere else – are mixed.

On the one hand, nobody likes the office whiner. The guy who stands around the mail boxes and complains about everything from the taste of the free coffee to the flawed personalities of everybody in the office except his own.

And Busch was a whiner. Publicly and about everything. It can be easy to say that those around people like that should grow thicker skins, that they should factor it in and blow it off. But when it is you and your work being ripped in front of 25 million people, forgiveness can indeed take divine might.

And rather than being placated by that old excuse for bad behavior that goes: “Oh, he/she is just

Kurt Busch failed miserably at polishing his image at Penske Racing. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

so competitive and wants to win so bad, you have to excuse his/her decision to run a cheese grater across the face of that nun”, I am nauseated by it. I tend toward those who lose – or win – with class.

And it is obvious that racing is a unique sport in that participants have to be mindful of how their actions are viewed by their sponsors.

Kyle Petty, the former driver and current on-air analyst at SPEED, was 100 percent correct when he said Monday, “This is a business. When a driver’s behavior and actions bleed over to the business side, then it becomes everybody’s business. With some of the things that went on with Kurt this year with his in-car tirades, and I’ve defended him on every single tirade inside the race car, with the way he’s been portrayed in the media and now his outburst toward Jerry Punch, I don’t think the sponsors can live with that.”

Yep, obvious.

Here comes the “However”:

I don’t think what the world has been privy to in recent weeks warrants termination – from his job and possibly from his career.

Geez, getting cursed out by the people one covers in journalism goes with the territory. Especially at a race track, during a race. It ain’t fun, it ain’t pretty but it happens a lot and not just in racing. Troy Aikman came after me with guns blazing in a Dallas Cowboy locker room once. (He’s bigger than he looks on TV.)

And if ripping into reporters were grounds for dismissal, Dale Earnhardt Sr. never would have won seven championships. Those who say that Earnhardt would never have done what Busch did to Dr. Punch either have bad memories or don’t know what they are talking about.

My guess is that Dr. Punch, with whom I dinner in Indy over the summer and whom I have long

Roger Penske spent six seasons with Kurt Busch. Six was enough. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

believed to be exceedingly professional, would not want Busch to be booted from the sport because of what happened in Homestead. I sure didn’t want that when Earnhardt rudely dismissed me from the garages at Texas about 15 years ago. I didn’t want it for Richard Childress when he jumped and punched Kyle Busch in the Kansas garages, I didn’t want it for A.J. Foyt when he attacked Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane in Texas.

And I’m not sure ripping your team over the two-way radio during races warrants termination.

And while agreeing with Petty and legion others who say that employment in racing depends on keeping the sponsors happy and selling, I do not agree that that is the way it should be. Not in racing, a sport which sees itself as a stalwart of rugged individualism and independence. A sport which professes to want driver personalities to de-vanilla-ize.

I find it worrisome that Madison Avenue might be running auto racing teams these days and not Roger Penske.

Larry McReynolds, a former Cup crew chief and current television analyst who admits that he himself has had anger management problems, said this week, “Kurt’s future isn’t necessarily about what owner will have him – it’s more about what sponsor will.” I think that’s true but sad.

I have been “Busch-ed”. The first time, many years ago as we sat holding an “interview” in an SUV after an outdoor appearance in Kansas City which was arranged by his PR person. I got out of that SUV mumbling to myself, “F him”.

But I have also seen the other side of the man. Like over the summer when he was extremely accommodating during a PR stop, during which he showed amazing patience in putting up with questions from unprepared local reporters.

And I especially remember his eyes moistening the time I told him I was sorry to hear that his West Highland White Terrier, Jim, had been killed.

So, yes, mixed feelings about Busch being out of a ride and, potentially, out of the sport next year.

One thing I am sure of, however, is that Busch is a hell of a driver and though he may not be my kind of person, racer or corporate spokesperson, he is my kind of wheelman.

I hope he finds a good new ride.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 6 2011
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Richard Moore says:

    Golden rule Jim, he would never take what he gave out.
    This isn’t about sponsors, owners or NASCAR it’s about not treating people with respect and expecting to get away with it, the one and only reason he lasted this long is he can win do you think Roger would have put up this long if didn’t win, the golden rule in sports the man with the money makes the rules.
    All Kurt needed to do was to treat others as he wish to be treated and this story would never been written

  • Joe says:

    Jim, you sound like Tony Stewart the way you say “local” reporter. Don’t let Woody hear you say that.