INDIANAPOLIS — Kurt Busch is a jerk. He’s A-Rod on four wheels. Lance Armstrong with a Tour de France-sized attitude.
He’s called The Outlaw, fighting and feuding with anyone he feels crossed him on the track — or anywhere else.
Got a beef with Busch? Well, odds are he has a problem with you.
Except for one pesky problem that pokes a hole in the popular narrative that Busch is a bad guy: He might not actually be all that bad.
“I need to tell him how much joy he’s given me through the years,” said Gary Loeck, a NASCAR fan from Ballentine, Minnesota. “And I need to thank him for the Armed Forces Foundation work he’s done. I think he’s misunderstood sometimes.”
Wearing a No. 41 hat, the official Double T-shirt, and holding a beer, Loeck easily blends in with the rest of the 100 or so fans waiting to meet Busch at Kansas Speedway. At least one female fan burst into tears when she meets Busch. Grown men call Busch a hero. Like most drivers, Busch smiles and signs away, each meet-and-greet as routine as the last, even if the fan in front of him remembers forever.
This fan-friendly family man is NASCAR’s Bad Boy?
Of course, on race weekends, he’s the anti-Dale Junior. The kind of driver who famously feuded with his brother, unleashed R-rated meltdowns on the radio and channeled his inner Bob Knight with the media. OK, he hasn’t thrown a chair. But he has attempted a burnout near another driver’s pit stall.
On his best behavior this month trying to earn respect and overdue appreciation from the motorsports world, Busch has been painstakingly rehabbing his image as he chases history by trying to become only the second driver to complete 1,100 total miles by racing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 in the same day.
The same driver who was disciplined for berating reporters opened his private jet to them. He bantered like a seasoned Hollywood heavyweight with Matt Lauer and Al Roker on the “Today Show.” And around the IndyCar paddock, he’s been adopted as one of the boys.
“He certainly has, as part of his reinvention, made himself more likable,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “He’s philanthropic, he does a lot with the Armed Forces Foundation. That’s a side of Kurt that people didn’t see for a long time. Whether it was there or not or whether it’s new, it’s hard to say. But it’s certainly there now.”
What’s Busch really like? Hard to say, though Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe poked fun at Busch’s churlish reputation following Indy 500 qualifying.
“(He’s) normally throwing stuff and cussing a lot,” he said, laughing. “No, no, no. That’s clearly a Kurt of old. The guy that we’ve had has just been awesome.”
The Kurt of old is the one who called Roger Penske “dude” over the radio. The one who tussled with Jimmy Spencer and Tony Stewart. The 35-year-old driver who burned through teams like he was angling for free agency every year, not the cornerstone of a championship organization.
He’s a multiple-time nominee for biggest villain in sports on various year-end lists. Forbes named him in 2013 as one of the 10 most disliked athletes in America. Busch has rarely backed down from his blunt style.
“You still need a PC filter in this day and age,” Busch said. “Everyone is so sensitive. In the fabric of America, we’re all a bunch of wussies now.”
Typical Outlaw. Luke Burrett, creator and CEO of Panic Switch, an apparel brand, struck up a friendship with Busch about three years ago. Burrett invited Busch to become a small investor in the company, but not before he had a nickname to emblazon on the T-shirts.
“I said, ‘Dude, you’re The Outlaw. You’re always fighting and scratching and doing your own thing.’ He kind of liked The Outlaw,” Burrett said. “We started out with The Honey Badger. But that didn’t stick.”
Busch learned the hard way his outbursts and suspensions define him as much as his 2004 championship and scores of checkered flags.
“Are my situations blown out of proportions? Yes,” Busch said. “You know, I had a problem with one driver early in my career, Jimmy Spencer. I didn’t have a problem with the whole garage. Next thing I know, the media said, ‘Everybody in the garage hates you.’ No they don’t. But when I confronted the media about it, it only made the situation worse.”
Busch throws himself into various goodwill causes, mostly related to the Armed Forces Foundation. Busch and girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, president of the AFF, invited a veteran to their home for Christmas. He visits injured personnel at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Busch even accepted a challenge to race karts against one bold vet.
His relationship with Driscoll and her son, Houston, have mostly mellowed Busch, whose 2012 season with underfunded James Finch and Phoenix Racing was a last hurrah for a man yearning to find peace in his personal life
“Those guys were the captains of fun,” Busch said. “I’d go to the shop, drive 90 minutes to South Carolina, roll up my sleeves, get dirty with the guys, hang out, and drink beer at 5 when the shop was closing up.”
“I hated it,” Driscoll said, shaking her head.
Those days are gone, for now. Busch beat the odds and landed with an elite organization in Stewart-Haas Racing. He has a win and a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship nearly locked up. His 230 mph speeds at the Brickyard have fueled talk around Gasoline Alley that he can win the Indy 500.
“I still have a lot to learn and a lot to go,” Busch said. “But we did have a Trevor Bayne win our Daytona 500 a couple of years ago. It can happen.”