Can Kurt Busch Help The Indianapolis 500?
Last May, Kurt Busch stirred some interest when he spent a day testing Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car for Michael Andretti. It didn’t take him long to get up to competitive speeds, but there were no other cars on the track. Although I assume there are some major differences between a stock car and an IndyCar, I wasn’t surprised that he was up to speed in short order. I say that as if I’ve driven both types of cars. I have not, but I’ve read many of the impressions of those that have.
Of course, being up to speed when you are the only car on the track, is far different than dealing with traffic and turbulence while racing for position. Even I know that much. Even though Kurt Busch is not the most likeable driver to sit in a race car, the man is talented behind the wheel. I am confident that if he decided to drive in this year’s Indianapolis 500, as he has hinted, he has the skill set to do so.
I’ve heard and read various opinions on whether or not Kurt Busch’s presence in this year’s 500 would dramatically increase interest and consequently improve ratings. Some say it could make a world of difference, while others claim it wouldn’t move the needle at all.
I’m somewhere in the middle. After all, AJ Allmendinger didn’t do much to increase the visibility of the Indianapolis 500 among NASCAR fans. Then again, Allmendinger was not a former NASCAR Cup champion. Instead, Allmendinger’s best points finish in Cup was fifteenth and his main claim to fame in stock cars was managing to get suspended after failing a random drug test.
Kurt Busch is different. He won the 2004 Nextel Cup championship, while driving for Jack Roush. Busch moved to Roger Penske’s NASCAR stable in 2006. Altogether, he has amassed twenty-four wins on the Cup level. Aside from his championship in 2004, Busch also has a third, fourth and seventh in championship points. Nothing against Allmendinger, who could have been in position to win last year’s 500 had his seat belts not come undone; but I would say Busch has a few more skins on the wall than Allmendinger.
But Busch fell on hard times after his much-publicized profanity-laden run-in with Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead during the 2011 season finale. Before the start of the 2012 season, Busch and Penske had parted ways and he moved on to drive for James Finch at Phoenix Racing. Last year, he drove for Furniture Row Racing. After two years of humble pie, Busch returns to a top team for 2014 when he’ll join Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing alongside Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.
Last week at NASCAR Media Days, Busch rated his chances of driving in this year’s Indianapolis 500 as 70-30 in favor of doing it. One potential snag was that the team he tested with last season, Andretti Autosport, switched from Chevy to Honda engines over the winter. Stewart-Haas runs Chevy in NASCAR. Busch hinted that he had spoken to one Chevy team, presumably Chip Ganassi Racing; but he also intimated that while Chevy would prefer him to run a Chevy at Indianapolis, they would not prevent him from driving a Honda in the 500.
Many will remember Bump Day at Indianapolis in 2004. Tony Stewart entertained the thought of qualifying one of AJ Foyt’s cars that was powered by Toyota. As the ESPN cameras showed Stewart sitting in the car with a Toyota sticker behind him, Chevy officials called him on his cell phone and told him (a) he would not be driving a Toyota in the 500 and (b) get out of the car immediately. Chevy caught some flack from fans on the NASCAR and IndyCar sides that wanted to see him race. Apparently, they’ve softened their stance over the last ten years and will allow Busch to drive a Honda powered car if he cannot land a one-off ride with a Chevy team.
While the presence of a former NASCAR champion may generate a little more interest for the 500 on the NASCAR side, what I think will make the biggest difference is the fact that he will be attempting “The Double” – running in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday afternoon, then driving in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte that night. No driver has attempted the double, since Robby Gordon did it in 2004 – when he had to leave Indianapolis during a rain-delay and fly to Charlotte. Jacques Lazier drove relief for Gordon when the 500 resumed after the track dried.
John Andretti was the first driver to attempt the double in 1994. He had switched from IndyCar to NASCAR, but still wanted to drive in the 500. He drove in the 500 for AJ Foyt, where he completed all the laps and finished tenth. He boarded a jet and flew to Charlotte just in time for the start. Unfortunately, he dropped out of the 600 on Lap 220 and finished thirty-sixth. Out of the three drivers to run the double; John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart, only Stewart has completed all 1,100 miles – accomplishing the feat in 2001. Stewart finished sixth at Indianapolis and third at Charlotte.
Beginning in 2005, the start times for both races had been moved where the double was virtually impossible. Starting in 2011, starting times were adjusted making the double a possibility again. No one has attempted it since 2004, but Kurt Busch is sounding like a distinct possibility to become the first driver in ten years to try it.
To me, that will move the needle. If ESPN could get behind it and hype it up as only they can, this could be a much-needed shot in the arm for both series. Just as Allmendinger almost did last year, Kurt Busch can win the Indianapolis 500 in a Ganassi or Andretti car. He would also have the first legitimate shot of winning both races since Tony Stewart in 2001, when Stewart drove for Ganassi at Indianapolis and Joe Gibbs in Charlotte.
If Kurt Busch gets a ride for this year’s Indianapolis 500, I’m hoping it gets confirmed sooner than later. The quicker the better. I don’t know if Darrell Waltrip would give it the publicity it deserves in the FOX NASCAR broadcasts, but he should. Of course, somehow he’ll weave a story where this was all NASCAR’s idea and his presence will raise the bar at the Indianapolis 500.
But if this does get done early enough, it is a golden opportunity for CJ O’Donnell and his staff to show what kind of marketing and promotion they are capable of. If Kurt Busch does run at the Speedway this May, everyone involved from ABC/ESPN and NBCSN to IndyCar and IMS need to jump on board this bandwagon and milk it for all it’s worth. That’ll get the eyeballs to tune in for whatever format they’ll have for Qualifying and most importantly – Race Day.
If people will tune in, I’m convinced that the quality of the racing, the tradition and the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500 can convert more than a few casual fans into regular fans. Then, you hope the regular fans will become die-hards over time. It’s a process, but getting Kurt Busch into an Indianapolis 500 ride early enough is the first of many steps in that process. After all…it’s got to be a lot more interesting than last night’s Super Bowl.