Thursday, March 6, 2014

Busch Facing Greater Challenges Than “The Double”

Andretti and Busch at last year's Indy car test session
Much of the reaction to Kurt Busch’s announcement this week that he will attempt “The Double,” running both the Indianapolis 500 and Charlotte 600 on the same day, has focused on the physical and logistical challenges of racing 1,100 miles at tracks several hours apart. 

In reality, the challenge Busch faces is far greater than that.

Busch likes to think of himself as a throwback to the drivers of the ‘60s and ‘70s who often jumped from Indy cars, to stock cars to sports cars.  And to a limited extent he is.  He’s tried his hand at drag racing and tested the Indy car and V8 Supercar.  That’s a long way from racing them.  And back then it was easier to run both Charlotte and Indy because the races were held on different weekends.    But you’ve to admire him for giving it a shot.

“This is really to challenge myself within motorsports,” Busch said. “Perhaps I am a bit of an old-school racer. I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars and testing themselves in other series. It is tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it.”

He becomes the fourth driver to attempt a “true Double” – running both races on the same day – and the first in 10 years. The previous attempts, however, were made by former Indy car drivers Tony Stewart and John Andretti, along with Robby Gordon, who had plenty of Indy car experience prior to his first 500.

Busch will be a rookie at Indy.  He’s tested at the Speedway and passed a rookie orientation there last year.  But he’s never driven in an Indy car race. He’ll be fast in practice.  Running in the Indy 500 will be a whole ‘nother ballgame.  It’s doubtful he’ll experience anything in practice like the turbulence created by 33 race cars traveling at more than 210 mph.   He’ll get a feel for it on “Carb Day,” the final practice session prior to the 500 when qualifiers have a final chance to tune their cars.  Even then there won’t be the tightly bunched pack of cars you’ll see at the start and restarts of the 500.

Busch says he’ll seek advice from Stewart and Sam Hornish, a former teammate and Indy 500 winner.   He’d be well-served to also talk with AJ Allmendinger, who drove Indy cars for several years before moving to NASCAR, returning last year to run his first Indy 500.  He qualified fifth for the race, but was so unnerved by the turbulence at the start he was on the radio saying something must be wrong with the car.

"I was a sissy on the start," said Allmendinger, who would eventually lead the race for 23 laps. "That might have been the worst Indy 500 start ever. I went from like fifth to 20th in one lap. It took me about 40 laps to settle down."

Several Indy car drivers have won NASCAR races. A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 and Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford and Jim Hurtubise, among others, also have victories.  No NASCAR driver has ever won an in Indy car event, let alone the Indy 500.

Busch won’t be the first to try Indy without any previous experience. Fireball Roberts tested a car at the Speedway before deciding open wheels and the track weren’t for him. Curtis Turner twice tried to qualify for the 500 and nearly killed himself in one of Smokey Yunick’s racers before giving up.  Bobby Johns crashed Yunick’s controversial sidecar while trying to qualify for the ’64 race.  He came back as a Lotus teammate to eventual race winner Jimmy Clark in ’65 and finished seventh, beaten out for rookie honors by a kid named Mario Andretti.  Johns was back again in ’69 and finished 10th driving for J. C. Agajanian.  Cale Yarborough drove in ’66, being caught up in the first lap wreck, and he was joined by LeeRoy Yarbourgh in ’67.  The Alabama Gang of Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and Neil Bonnett all took a crack at Indy at one point.

Donnie Allison is the most successful of all NASCAR invaders, finishing fourth and earning Rookie of the Year honors while driving for A. J. Foyt in 1970, a week after winning the Charlotte race.  In ’71 they ran the two races back-to-back and Allison finished sixth at Indy on Saturday and second at Charlotte the next day.  Not too shabby.

There have been NASCAR winners at Indy, although it’s been awhile.  The Wood Brothers were imported to the handle the pit stop chores for Clark in ‘65 and were one of the keys to his victory.  And Yunick was the crew chief on the winning car of Jim Rathman in 1960 (although he doesn’t always get the credit).

There are other obstacles ahead for Busch than just starting his first Indy car race.  He’ll be in a fifth car from Andretti Autosport, which fields cars for four series regulars, including Marco Andretti. The team is already facing a unique challenge of running a race on Indy’s road course the first weekend in May and then preparing for the 500.  Busch can be hard on his crew under the best of situations.  It will be interesting to see how he reacts when the team is pushed to the limit and he’s low man on the totem pole.  It will require a new level maturity we haven’t seen in the past.

I hope he is able to hold it together and does well in the 500.  I’m not normally a Kurt Busch fan, but on May 25 I’ll be pulling for him.  And I suspect a lot of other NASCAR fans will be too.

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to mention that Kurt can get advice from his other teammate, Danica. Say what you will about her overall talent, but she's very good at Indy. The 500 is about keeping the car in good shape until the last ten laps and she's excellent at conservation and race strategy. Luck played a big role in her debut when it looked like she might win, but she drove Indycars well on ovals, especially Indianapolis. More than any oval race I know of, the Indy 500 is all about setting up to be in a good spot with ten laps to go and hoping that luck is on your side.

    I like Kurt, but I'm fairly certain that he'll be in the 4th turn wall before the 75th lap. I hope he gets to try this more than once with a good team. And I drool at the possibility of Rick Hendrick deciding to finance the 500 for the whole Stewart-Haas team before the current members move on..