Busch brothers still stirring the pot
I have a confession to make.
I made a mistake and I am willing to admit it. Now I am asking for those who goofed along with me -- sponsors, team owners, fans, fellow media members, everyone -- to join me, step forward, own our mistake and declare that we've had enough.
They sat down with me on April 23, 2010, to do a joint interview for ESPN The Magazine after nearly two years of asking. They made me believe they had grown up. They convinced me that, after a decade of immature decision-making, temper tantrums and disturbingly calculated acts of disrespect that they were on the path to adulthood. The wins were no longer enough. They wanted to be better brothers and better people. Kyle even went so far as to share a quote that he had started carrying in his pocket. It was from educator Lawrence J. Peter: "Speak when you're angry and you'll give the greatest speech you'll ever regret."
"We still hear the boos. But not like before," they proclaimed to me in stereo. "That's not who we are anymore."
No, they certainly aren't. They're worse.
During 2011, one of the most celebrated, competitive seasons in NASCAR's six-decade-plus history, the Busch bothers put on a sad, downward spiral of a display, reminiscent of two 3-year-olds fighting over who will get the last cupcake. The last month alone would be laughable if it weren't so sad.
Do I do need to sift through the laundry list or would you rather just go to YouTube? Flipping out, flipping off, tearing a transcript in a reporter's face, wrecking people under caution, being benched, sponsors withdrawing and then showing all the regret of someone who'd accidentally stepped on a daffodil.
The routine that has followed each incident is like a CD with a scratch on it. A forced public apology and a fine, bracketed by statements from their race teams and sponsors stating that the drivers' actions hadn't represented what their corporations are all about.
It has all been repeated in the week since Kurt's gone-viral fit that he pitched toward ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch at the Homestead-Miami season finale. Kurt will no doubt fulfill his usual role -- phony remorse -- when he makes his first postseason public appearance later this week.
Then, as it has their whole lives, everything will return to normal. As always, they will get back in their race cars, chill for maybe a week or two while the spotlight still burns and then slip back into their profane, disrespectful cycle.
At worst, it's disturbing. At best, it's enabling.
I do give the Busch boys credit when it comes to those they choose to snub. Their list of targets is a who's who roster of NASCAR's most well-respected citizens.
Kurt drives for Roger Penske, winner of 15 Indianapolis 500s. Kyle races for Joe Gibbs, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Both owners were willing to sign the Busch boys when other team owners -- Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick -- had had enough.
Does that sound like two men worthy of endless weekly radio tirades, such as "This is the biggest s--- box I've ever driven" and "Why the f--- am I even out here driving this piece of f------- piece of s---, this is one giant f------- waste of my time"?
Those quotes are from just one lap of one recent race. Cursing out their crew, crew chiefs and car owners is the brothers' modus operandi, to the point that race fans tune in to their radio frequencies in the name of entertainment, inspiring whole segments on nightly NASCAR TV shows.
Then there are the sponsors. Shell-Pennzoil has been involved in American auto racing since 1933 and in NASCAR since 1991. In 1990, Mars U.S., manufacturer of M&M's, joined NASCAR, long heralded for its marketing creativity and its reach to kids. Two corporations that have stuck with the sport through thick and thin, that have committed tens of millions of dollars even now, during an economic downturn when countless other potential sponsors have either cut and run or passed altogether. And now they are holding meetings to write apologies because their drivers, dressed head-to-toe in those sponsors' logos, can't open their mouths without sounding like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
There is also the long list of people whose job it is to take care of the brothers, from the crews to the business managers, team executives and public relations reps. Every time the Busch boys do something regrettable those are the people who end up sitting on midnight conference calls to sort it all out. Then they have to go around whispering apologies to those who have been slighted or offended, swallowing their pride to say over and over, "I am so sorry, but, well, you know how [insert Kurt or Kyle here] is."
And lastly there are the fans, the people who have dedicated their grandstand loyalties to Kurt and Kyle, wearing the brothers' faces on their clothing and tattooing the Nos. 18 and 22 onto their bodies. Their reward for that allegiance is to constantly be put in the position of defending the indefensible. "Thanks for your support," the brothers essentially say to their fans. "Now enjoy being booed and flipped off as you walk to your seats."
Is there a place for anger and passion in auto racing? Yes.
Is there a place for colorful characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves? Absolutely.
Yes, they've all had their moments. In some cases they had their seasons. But they also all -- no matter how far down their low points may have reached -- managed to finally achieve some sort of balance. At some stage in their career they grew up. They began to appreciate all that they had been blessed with instead of believing that we should all feel blessed to be in their presence.
In other words, they discovered humility. And not one of them stopped winning because of it. Just ask Stewart, who less than a decade ago was the sport's bad boy. Now he's a newly crowned three-time champion.
As we enter this offseason, I hope that the Busch brothers stumble over a little of the same. Perhaps it will start this week. On Friday night the NASCAR awards ceremony will take place at the towering Wynn, jewel of the Las Vegas Strip. Only two of the 12 drivers who made this year's Chase for the Cup field won't be in attendance -- Kurt and Kyle Busch, having staggered their ways down to the final two rungs of the top 12 in points.
Just four miles west of the Wynn sits Duneville Street, where little Kurt and Kyle spent their childhoods racing go-karts through a slalom course of crushed soda cans in the cul-de-sac. When they were finished they would come into the house and watch Winston Cup races on ESPN with their father, Tom, breaking down every move that Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon made on and off the racetrack.
They would watch those racers be interviewed by Dr. Jerry Punch and dream of a day when they might earn the same privilege. They would watch the Pennzoil and Snickers cars blast around the track and imagine what it would be like to drive them. They would see Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske sit atop their pit boxes, and the little boys would try to envision what it might be like to one day work for those titans of the sport. And they would see fans wearing the autographs and apparel of the Cup stars, no doubt wondering what it would be like to have a loyal legion of their own.
I would like to think that those childhood dreams didn't include a wish of, "When I finally get there, I can't wait to cover those people in f-bombs." But all the evidence that Kurt and Kyle have laid before us says otherwise.
I'm sure they would like to convince us to the contrary, but I'm having none of it. To quote a great philosopher who once roamed the streets of their hometown, it's time for a little less conversation and a little more action. Until then, I'm out. We all should be.
They've fooled me before. It isn't happening again.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.