Correct This Time On Kurt Busch, NASCAR Has Been Wrong Before


NASCAR got it right: Kurt Busch shouldn’t be in the Daytona 500.  He shouldn’t be in any race this season if the sport wishes to retain its integrity.  Amidst justified demands for accountability on domestic violence, NASCAR made the best call it could.

In a long history of Busch as a controversial figure, it’s also a call NASCAR might not have needed to make if it had responded sooner.

The court opinion suggests Patricia Driscoll’s account is, at present, better supported.  It references photographs of Driscoll’s injuries, consistent with her description.  It is not a trial by jury, nor does it employ as rigorous a standard as one, but it provides compelling reasons to believe that no matter what we do not yet know of the details, something happened last September that does not reflect positively on the character of Kurt Busch.

Race fans are free to disagree.  Many have.

But if they don’t accept the ruling, they must still admit this: even a theoretically innocent Busch wouldn’t belong on the track.

In the proceedings, Busch stated he was alone, naked, and crying after watching a movie, just nights before a major race.  Andrew Lawrence documents his admission to drinking and depression problems.  His assistant, who predominantly supports Busch, contended he took a swing at her when drunk at a baseball game.  The text messages he sent Driscoll were so concerning even his bus driver — who testified largely in Busch’s favor — was worried about his well-being.

Busch is distracted, and he’s a distraction, guilty or not.

Some may argue NASCAR should have waited for formal charges.  Others would take it further, wanting a conviction.  It’s not, however, a debate of criminality that would justify or invalidate Busch’s suspension.

It’s instead about his safety.  It’s about the safety of others.  Based on the testimony — even his own — he’s in no state to operate a race car, no matter how talented he may be.

That’s where NASCAR is right to suspend Busch, but it’s also where NASCAR has been wrong for years.

More from NASCAR

Fail a drug test?  There’s a Road to Recovery.  Slur?  There’s sensitivity training.  On some issues, NASCAR will intervene.  It will help.  It will get you back to racing by getting you back into better habits.

Mental health has not been one of those areas.  While Busch was suspended once before for a rage-filled interaction with journalist Bob Pockrass, it was simply a “cool off” week.  There was no outreach.  There were no conditions for returning.

That’s been consistent with the treatment of Busch by the NASCAR community: consequences, but never solutions, and sometimes, even making a show of it.

His outbursts fill YouTube listings; apparently, they’re entertaining.  He’s called “The Outlaw,” a nickname romanticized by his transgressions, branding everything wrong in his situation as a hashtag proclamation of everything supposedly right.

Week after week, we were told he’s reformed, and we bought it — not because we saw many changes in behavior, but because we wanted to believe in a driver who was taking small-team equipment to tremendous results.  We looked past the anger and instead made him NASCAR’s last bastion of fun: the one with the Talladega Nights and Days of Thunder cars; the one who dared to run Indianapolis, Thunderhill, NHRA, and the Race of Champions; the one who filled an anti-establishment role amidst fan frustration with NASCAR.

To NASCAR and the public, Busch wasn’t hurting, at least not in recent years.  It was the opposite of struggle: he was presented as thriving on an avenue to redemption.  Celebrated as hyper-competitive, Busch became a heroic racer who matched a loathe for losing with an old-school, win-at-all-costs demeanor.  The conservative points racing that NASCAR sought to eliminate with changes in 2014 was exactly what Busch had been portrayed as antithesis to.

In that, verbal abuse and a short temper got branded as intensity, focus, and determination.  Help with that?  Not a chance; it was encouraged.

That attitude applies to all drivers.  When fights break out, they’re promoted.  Meltdowns, tantrums, brawls — they sell.  It’s publicity, no matter who is involved, and no matter what the underlying issues are.

NASCAR never initiates meaningful action on that front, and with Busch, it needed to.  The racing community stopped questioning him in 2011, and few publicly cared about Busch’s mental health or the impact it could have on the people in his personal life.  Even those who never justified his antics were only calling for him to lose his ride or career, not to receive assistance.

Ignoring that NASCAR drivers are human, we just want them to entertain us and assume that, because they chose to be in the public, it’s fair game to gawk at the spectacle.  If Busch entertained, we ignored the implications of the destructive behaviors that comprised the show.  If he upset us, we just wished he’d disappear, never wondering about what that would mean for Kurt Busch, the person, or for others in his life.

On any end of the spectrum, care, concern, and compassion were absent.

Team owners fired Kurt Busch.  Sponsors cut ties.  NASCAR parked him for a weekend in 2012.  Selfishly, those actions protected their own interests.  They didn’t address Busch’s needs.  They didn’t address the needs of those around him.

Without real attention, those needs have spiraled into this situation, one in which Driscoll and her son, among others, are now hurting in ways no one should.

It would be unfair for NASCAR or the fans to bear all the blame in this incident, of which we still have details to learn.  To give everyone a pass, however, would be to let this situation happen again and again, where real-world behaviors from real-world people are caricatured for hype and marketing, and where any discipline offers no path to solve the problems for the future.

Imagine if, after any of his controversial moments, Busch had been suspended and given requirements to return that were designed to help him.  Maybe he wouldn’t have taken it, but as missed races accumulated over time, or as those around him encouraged him, that could have changed.

Then, he could have changed.

Instead, the only change made was a new ride when Team Penske and Shell parted ways with him.  We pretended that because he was somehow under less pressure in a smaller team, everything was okay.  We received a message that he was having fun again, even as he sped off at Talladega with a safety worker still attending to him or as he cursed out his crew, an issue that stopped being discussed when the recipient was no longer of Roger Penske’s status.

Now, it’s too late.  NASCAR can suspend Busch, but it cannot offer him help; accepting it would be used against his denial of the allegations.  More obviously, the organization cannot prevent what already happened or the consequences it has had on those beyond Busch.

Given the situation and what it means to victims of similar events, Kurt Busch shouldn’t be racing, and because NASCAR acted correctly, he won’t be.

But with a career of warning signs, Kurt Busch would’ve been racing with 42 drivers in his trail, instead of a trail of victims, if only those actions came sooner, and with an offer to help.