Houston had a wish list for the summer: ride his go-kart, fish, camp, go rock climbing, play video games. Pretty typical stuff for an 8-year-old boy.
Kurt Busch helped make all those happen with his girlfriend, Houston's mother, Patricia Driscoll.
But there was one desire that was Busch's alone to fulfill, and standing along pit road of Richmond International Raceway in September, he realized he had come up short on the last weekend of summer. At first upset, he reconsidered the possibilities, and he looked forward with hope, much as he has done in reconstructing both his personal and professional life the past three years.
"The moment when I saw him, I got emotional because he wanted to go to Victory Lane this summer," Busch told ESPN.com last month at Chicagoland Speedway. "That's not on every 8-year-old's to-do list. And I didn't get him there.
"But then that moment it dawned on me. 'We're going into the Chase. We're going up on stage, you need to get your firesuit on and be part of this Chase field up on stage.' It just hit me hard. I completed that list for him, to do that special moment."
Hustling with his mother back to Motor Racing Outreach, where he watches the races he attends, Houston fetched his green and black firesuit and with prompting from Busch and garage buddies like Chase qualifier Clint Bowyer, he was soon on stage and beaming.
Busch has four more opportunities to get Houston to Victory Lane this season, but presumably greater opportunity next season when he leaves the one-car Furniture Row team and joins Stewart-Haas Racing.
Clearly, they want to get there together, the 2004 series champion once tormented by troubles self-inflicted and otherwise, and the little kid who has not only seen but been a part of the evolution.
A changed man
Kurt Busch was 33, professionally in tumult and embarking on a very public de-evolution of a seven-year run at Penske Racing when he met Houston, then 6, in 2011. Busch's relationship with Houston's mother, Armed Forces Foundation executive director Patricia Driscoll -- whom he had begun dating earlier that year -- had evolved to the point where an introduction to her son seemed the next step. They mutually agreed to arrange the meeting on a race weekend, hopeful to defuse the often-awkward ritual stumbled through by parents and children and suitors every day.
Busch was nervous. He presented Houston with a die-cast replica of his race car. Houston was not nervous. And the kid began disarming Busch quickly. Almost immediately there were practical jokes and goofs and gags and something about a toy snake that makes Houston laugh so hard the story is unintelligible when he tries to tell it.
"They just instantly got along and liked each other. I don't know. Maybe they're just on the same level," Patricia Driscoll joked. "Houston was telling him about how we were going camping and Kurt said he likes to go camping and Houston said, 'Well, we don't go camping in a motor home, we go tent camping. We're hard-core.' At 6. He wanted Kurt to know he sleeps on the ground, that he doesn't need a bed roll and he's tough. They just got along from the beginning, playing with Nerf guns, and they've always just had fun."
Houston calls Busch "fun." He also calls him "stepdad."
"It was very emotional for me to watch those two because Houston has been there to see the struggles, and you can imagine for a little kid, the little guys don't understand the controversy and what people are saying and stuff," Driscoll said. "Houston is now where he can read some of these things and knows when people are being mean and saying hateful things, so I think for him to see stuff turn around for Kurt has been huge. When they come out for driver intros together, to get more cheers than boos, it's been a big process."
Houston, who splits his time between his father's home in Maryland and with his mother and Busch, who also live in the state in Ellicott City, has become a favorite among drivers, although he has assumed the role of unofficial vulgarity monitor, doling out $1 fines for each infraction. He's even busted Tony Stewart -- "Uncle Smoke," as he calls him -- Busch's teammate and car owner beginning next season. Houston has a way of keeping everyone on their best behavior, most notably Busch, who says he has come to understand the responsibility of a role model.
"When Houston is around, Kurt is even more cognizant of his behavior, of 'I don't want him to see me angry or upset because I don't want him to be upset,'" Driscoll said. "He knows that Houston gets concerned. I think he tries even more as a person and it's something that's turned him around. Kids' eyes and ears are open all the time."
"I've had to be on my game right away because a 6-year-old is going to say things to you and be able to remember things that will stick forever," Busch said.
Houston actually reversed those roles the week after Busch finished fourth at Atlanta to take over 10th place in the driver standings and was about to be announced as the fourth member of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
"Life through a kid's eyes is pretty accurate," Busch said. "He was pretty congratulatory to me and he patted me on the back to say, 'You've come full circle' with everything I've been through. We were trying to pick out a car number on Tony Stewart and Gene Haas' team for next year and he said, 'Put 360 on there.' The eyes of an 8-year-old see things very uniquely."
— Patricia Driscoll (@Patricia_AFF) October 23, 2013
Busch clearly cares about how Houston thinks of him, but his concern goes well beyond his trusted circle, Driscoll said. A driver who has struggled to craft a public persona amid success and turmoil, at times appearing defensive and stilted, at other times accessible but contrived, Busch keeps track of how he is perceived even beyond the instant feedback of driver introductions.
"He's actually a very caring person and he does a lot for other people, so it's very difficult for him when he thinks people hate him," Driscoll said. "He's thinking, 'What did I ever do to you for you to hate me?' So it does bother him.
"Kurt will read everything. I wish I could disable the Google function off of his phone. He wants to know what is going on all the time. He doesn't want to be blindsided."
Much of this generation of drivers who entered the Sprint Cup Series in their 20s have become 30-something family men in the ensuing decade. Busch was late among them, and by an alternate route, but has joined Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick in fatherly bliss, though he admits, "I drafted right by everybody" to the fun stuff. Changes have been evident in many of his peers, and himself, he said.
"There's the responsibility of being a father figure and it's 24/7," Busch said. "You're always trying to encourage things to do things better or do more things to experience life, and at the same time he's watching every one of your moves, whether you like it or not. Children have taught all of us in this Cup series a new element in life. And it's mellowed out a large group of us."
Houston and Busch's bond has grown stronger through the common affinity for karting. For Christmas this year, Busch and his family presented Houston with the yard kart he and his father had worked on and raced when he was a child.
"It's given me more respect for my father," Busch said. "Things you take for granted, now having him around, I know exactly what my dad was doing for me. You want to return the favor and you want to give the guidance to be your best as a father figure."
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) October 22, 2013
Sunday afternoons after Cup races, or Mondays after school, Busch and Houston are often found in a parking lot, turning laps around some crushed cans as a stopwatch whirs. Years ago it was Thomas Busch overseeing Kurt. Now it's Kurt with the stopwatch.
"Kurt's a good coach," Houston said.
Whether Houston is watching has never been in question, Busch said. But he's undoubtedly listening, too, repeating terminology that "I use and that nobody else would use," Busch said.
"I get excited about bringing a go-kart out on Sunday when we get home after a race early or on a Monday after school," Busch said. "My dad always brought out the go-kart Sunday after the Cup race. We watched the Cup race together and then we'd go work on the go-kart. I say work because he treated the go-kart like a tool, not a toy, and so with Houston we're a little busy on Sunday racing the big show, so on Mondays after school he gets his homework done and we work on it. It's the same sequence."
There is freedom and adventure in those endless loops for the child. There is catharsis in them for the adult, miles put behind him and progress toward something he hadn't been able to find for so many years.
"I needed to go through this," Busch said of taking on his role with Houston. "It's been fulfilling and gratifying to know that … I was good at certain things but I wasn't complete. And I kept ignoring my weak areas thinking the good side of what I do would carry me through.
"This has taught me how to handle disappointment better and it taught me how to handle certain situations better, when I just ignored it in the past."