My Brain on NASCAR: Confessions of a closet Kurt Busch fan

col-cathyelliottThis week I’d like to say a few words about a guy no one has ever referred to – in my presence anyway — as their favorite driver. No one has ever spent half an hour gushing to me about his charitable endeavors, which for the record supports health care, education, career training and rehabilitation. No one has bored me by rehashing the hilarity of his sitcom cameo appearances (which never happened). A lot of words fly around in reference to this guy, but very few of them are positive.

Well, no one has ever called me shy when it comes to expressing my opinions, so here goes.

I like Kurt Busch.

Kurt competed in his first-ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) race in 2000, the same year I went to work at Darlington Raceway, so in a sense I guess you could say we were rookies together. He only ran seven races that year, but the following season he won the pole for the Southern 500 in his very first attempt, which is impressive by anyone’s standards. He has always seemed to have an affinity for the place.

To be completely honest, I have only had one meaningful encounter with Kurt, and it was a really just a small thing, but it is and will remain one of my most memorable days at Darlington.

Here’s what happened.

I was working as the director of public relations at the track “Too Tough To Tame” on March 18, 2003 – that was back in the glory days when Darlington hosted two annual Sprint Cup Series weekends (just thought I’d throw that one out there, NASCAR, I can’t help myself) – when fans who came to see a race left as witnesses to history.

It was the day Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch (who was battling the car as well as the track since his power steering had gone out several laps earlier), to the checkered flag by .002 seconds. It was the closest finish in NASCAR history, and one heck of a show.

We brought Kurt and Ricky back to the track for a media event, and as part of the old-school promotional wackiness that Darlington was famous for back in the day, asked them to put on boxing gloves and pose for a photo op on the start/finish line.

They declined the invitation to wear the satin trunks, citing skin allergies or forgetting to bring sunscreen or something like that. Go figure.

Think about this; it’s great to be part of the closest-ever finish if you end up in Victory Lane at the end of the day, but for the second-place guy, well … you kind of become the sport’s most famous loser. Yet Kurt Busch, without complaint, drove himself from the Charlotte area to Darlington, SC on a Tuesday morning and posed for a slightly embarrassing photo to promote a race at a track where he had never scored a win.

In all my years at Darlington, I can honestly say I never worked with anyone more gracious and accommodating.

We have seen Kurt Busch lose his temper and let his mouth get the better of him. That’s happened to me; it’s probably happened to you, too. We have seen him blame his co-workers, AKA his team members, for a poor job performance. I’ve done that; you probably have, too. We have seen him lose jobs as a result of his questionable behavior; that’s probably happened to some of us, too.

And we have definitely experienced the thrill of seeing him race. Like him or not, you can’t deny Busch’s talent. Last week at Pocono, racing on Monday thanks to a rain delay and without his crew chief, who was serving a one-week suspension, he overcame weather issues, fuel mileage concerns and Pocono Raceway itself (probably the second-weirdest track on the NSCS circuit, after Darlington), to bring home the win.

Then, just to add a little icing to my cake, he did that thing race car drivers often do, that I pray for week after week – he said something goofy.

“I felt like a cook in a kitchen trying to beat the buzzer and not get chopped at the end of the show, with as many things as I felt like I was managing,” he said. Yep, Kurt Busch watches the Food Network. Who knew?

In this case, he also served up the winning dish. Congratulations, Kurt; you have advanced to the next round. I can’t wait to watch it.

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