Sunday, May 29, 2011

Back Seat Driver: The Kyle Busch "Incident"

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano speak with Wendy Venturini before the All-Star Race
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

You have to hand it to Kyle Busch. Perhaps he subscribes to the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. At any rate, he certainly knows how to keep his name in the headlines. Since April 22 he’s won 3 Camping World Truck races, 2 Nationwide races, a Sprint Cup race, gotten into a probation-inducing conflict with fellow driver Kevin Harvick, and had high-profile Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen drive one of his KBM trucks, putting his young organization in the international spotlight.

That should be enough attention for anyone, right? Evidently not for Kyle Busch. If you’re a NASCAR fan, you know that on Tuesday afternoon, Rowdy received a speeding ticket. News of the event spread across social media at roughly 100 times the same speed Busch was going — which as you’ve probably heard and read, was 128 mph. In a 45-mph zone. At first people thought it had to be a joke, but all-too-quickly the ridiculous-sounding rumor proved to be true.

I’m sure you’ve read the stories, the press releases, the blog posts. You’re aware that Kyle was traveling on Perth Road in Troutman, N.C., a town of fewer than 2,000 people. By now you also know his wife, Samantha, was with him. You’ve also likely seen or heard his public apology for his “lack of judgment,” which had an air of familiarity to it after a similar apology he gave for punting the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick into the pit lane wall during a confrontation after the Darlington race.

Therein lies the rub. In other words, that’s why I’m sounding off over this incident. Had this been an isolated event in an otherwise pristine career, I’d think it was foolish and dangerous, of course, but not something to be overly concerned about having happen again. If it were my favorite driver under the gun here, I’d be upset with him. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Kyle Busch didn’t get the nickname “Rowdy” by singing off key in the church choir, folks, so it’s no surprise when he behaves badly.

I’m going to pause here and give a disclaimer or two. First, the opinions expressed here are my own. I respect your right to disagree. Second, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a fan of Kyle Busch on or off the track. That does not mean I don’t respect his talent or accomplishments. It was obvious from the time he began racing at age 16 in what was then the Craftsman Truck Series that Kyle was at least as talented as his older brother Kurt, if not more talented.

However, it’s my opinion that because of the almost instant recognition of that innate ability, Kyle Busch’s emotional growth froze at 16 years of age. Success came so easily and so quickly to him that he didn’t have any point of reference. He had the best opportunities and the best equipment available to him immediately so he never had to learn about delayed gratification. He never learned that you can’t always do what you want to do when you want to do it, regardless of the consequences. Oh, sure, he learned the lingo, the pat recital of gratitude to his sponsors and owner, but his adolescent attitude and antics belied his words, and make it difficult for me to believe he’s anything approaching sincere when he apologizes now.

But I digress. My point is that Kyle, though he’s now 26 chronological years old, is still that 16-year-old boy.When Lexus handed him the keys to their demo model of the LFA so he could take it for a spin, he reacted the way many people would when given the opportunity to drive such an attractive new toy: he tested its limits. That’s completely understandable … I did the same with a rented Dodge Charger, discovering that it would reach 100 mph with ease. The difference is that while I broke the speed limit, I did it on a stretch of freeway that carves through pastures and farmland, and at a point where I knew there were no roads crossing and no houses around. Illegal, yes, but I resisted the urge to floor it in the kind of area that Perth Road is.

I’ve never been there, but Dustin Long of the Greensboro News-Record describes it like this: “The two-lane road winds and dips through the countryside, homes here and there, a fire station nearby and a sign warning of curves ahead. There's no breakdown lane and power line poles stand within feet of the road in spots. Double yellow lines mark much of the road since Perth Road is not straight enough to safely pass.”

The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., put together this map to illustrate. Have a look, see what you think.

It’s easy to understand why area residents would be upset. Take a minute to look at this report from WCNC. Watch the road behind those speaking.



Remember, Kyle Busch lives in the area. His truck team headquarters are near here. There’s no way he didn’t know the type of road on which he was driving. He simply didn’t stop to think of the consequences of his actions. Again. Just as he didn’t stop to think how that #29 car would react when pushed from behind at just the right angle. Kyle didn’t have the self-awareness to say to his wife, “You know, I’m going to want to put this baby through its paces. I better get a closed course so no outsiders get hurt if something goes wrong.”

And when he glanced down at the speedometer — because you know he had to have looked, what’s the point in driving that way if you don’t know how fast “fast” is? — he didn’t have the maturity or responsibility to say, “Wow, this car can go fast. I better not push it, this is a populated area. Better try this on a track instead,” and then do exactly that. It’s likely, given the statement of the deputy who cited him, that this professional race car driver viewed the sassy little yellow concept car as a “toy” in comparison to his work vehicle. Toyota/Lexus’ specs for the LFA state it’s got a 552 hp engine, when the standard Sprint Cup car has about 865hp when unrestricted. Piece of cake for a professional, right?

Consider this. Motor Trend reviewed the LFA and said its first impression was that “The LFA rides hard. Really hard. No variable shocks; the chassis is chef's choice only. On smoother stretches of autobahn, the stiffness is largely irrelevant, but it's not hard to imagine the LFA growing tiresome during extended drives on brittle roads.”

I’m betting Perth Road’s pretty brittle. Imagine that stiff suspension hitting a bump at the speed Kyle was driving. Now remember that there are poles only 10 feet from the roadway in some places. One would think that a professional would be able to gauge the danger in a situation and avoid it. But Kyle’s not emotionally mature enough to make that distinction. That may sound harsh, but who’s the one doling out apologies for “poor judgment”?

Dwight Drum of bleacherreport.com spoke with Kyle Petty, whose family is synonymous with professional stock car racing.

“The highway is a public area,” Petty said. “It’s supposed to be used responsibly. I don’t care if you’re in a car, a big truck or a motorcycle. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s not your personal playground. It’s not to come out and do stunts on. It’s not to come out and run 100 in a 55 anything like that. That’s not what it’s for. If you want to go do that, then go to a track. There’s plenty of tracks around and plenty of safe places to go play and have fun, if you want to have fun on a bike or a car. It doesn’t make any difference what you’re in .... All you can say about it is that it’s totally irresponsible.”

There are those who, while not condoning Kyle Busch’s actions, don’t believe they should be blown out of proportion. I understand that other drivers have done it, that he’s not the first and won’t be the last driver to ever make an error in judgment in his private life. That doesn’t excuse this driver, this time, or the one before that, or the one before that. You don’t justify bad behavior by saying “everyone’s” doing it. If that’s the case, then “everyone” needs to stop, too! Just ask the families who still grieve the young men who made that error and discovered that Perth Road and speed don’t mix.

But at the same time, I don’t believe that NASCAR as a sanctioning body has any reason to get involved. Kyle was on his own time, away from the track, and while his actions may have been detrimental to stock car racing in some people’s eyes, it would be rather hypocritical of The Powers That Be to point fingers at someone driving too fast on back roads. At least he wasn’t hauling moonshine and running from the revenuers.

That doesn’t mean Kyle Busch should not face any professional consequences. Unlike other driving positions, such as truckers, chauffeurs, or delivery people, Kyle’s work isn’t contingent on him maintaining a valid state driver's license. Therefore, the fact that he will most likely lose his operator’s license through the courts doesn’t affect his ability to drive in NASCAR. That’s a curious rule, and one I’m not so sure I like, but there it is.

As an employee of Joe Gibbs Racing, however, Kyle Busch should face significant repercussions. As a professional athlete, he likely has a conduct clause in his contract and if he doesn’t then shame on Coach Gibbs. The same holds for Kyle as a representative of Mars, Inc. and Interstate Batteries. Considering how much money Kyle makes, a fine won’t really hurt him much. JGR should donate the money to a relevant charity, though, if they don’t already routinely do so.

However, there are other ways to take Kyle to task. Joe Gibbs has been quoted from various sources — including live updates via Twitter on Media Day — as saying he’s considering his options to be sure Kyle understands this is “serious.” Some sort of public service work, possibly with the B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe) program that NHRA star Doug Herbert founded in memory of his sons, aged 17 and 12, who were killed in 2008 while speeding near their home in North Carolina. That option would be a good one, of course.

Big brother Kurt Busch says he believes Kyle’s learned his lesson. I hope I’m wrong, but I really doubt it. At least at this point in the story, he hasn’t. He’s given the canned apology speech, but I didn’t get the impression he was particularly remorseful, especially with so many other drivers saying they would have done, or have done the same thing.

Kyle Busch needs something to give him a vivid picture of the risk he took with his own life and that of those around him. Something to shake him up. Something to penetrate his Kevlar composure. Sure, he's going to have his day in court. He's been there before, he knows the drill. So what if he loses his regular operator's license? He can afford to be chauffeured around.

No, I think Kyle should have to either ride with the EMTs who respond to accidents, or spend some time working in the county morgue or medical examiner’s office. Or both. Spend some time with the families of those who lost loved ones to drivers who were found guilty of the same things for which he was ticketed.

Perhaps then they wouldn’t seem like misdemeanors.
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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and may not reflect those of Skirts and Scuffs administrators or other contributors. 

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