by Charlton Stanley
This afternoon, one of the most popular auto races in the world will be held. At 1:00 PM EST, the green flag will drop for the 2015 Daytona 500. This race started as a shorter race of 200 miles, run partly on beach sand, and partly on a beachfront highway, using stock cars.
Racing promoters realized that the race in Daytona had the potential to become a major event. Investors sank a substantial sum into building a 2.5 mile long track, which is the same length as the famed Indianapolis track. However, where the Indy track is in the shape of a rectangle with rounded corners, the Daytona track is a tri-oval. In further comparison to the Indy track, the Daytona track has high and steep banking. This allows higher speeds in the turns.
After speeds at Daytona began to exceed 200 mph, NASCAR introduced “restrictor plates.” The race cars are normally aspirated, with carburetors instead of fuel injectors. The restrictor plate limits the amount of air the carburetor intake can suck in, thus reducing horsepower. The reduction in engine power reduces the top speeds. Restrictor plate racing has one side effect. All the cars perform at nearly the same level, causing cars to bunch up in ‘packs’, with skilled drafting honed to a fine art.
Two or three cars running nose-to-tail can go faster than a single car, due to several factors that are probably of interest only to physicists and dedicated gearheads. However, to draft at a superspeedway like Daytona, requires driving skill that borders on artistry, and trust.
A lot of trust.
Almost everyone who drives has needed a push from time to time. Recall that no matter how careful the driver giving a push tries to be, there is usually a jolt when the two bumpers touch.
Imagine the skill and concentration it takes for Dale Earnhardt to pull up behind Jeff Gordon at 199 mph, and gently bump his rear bumper. If there is a jolt, the car in front will spin out and wreck, so the push has to be as gentle as powdering a baby’s behind. Then, Earnhardt follows Gordon around the track with only six inches separating the two cars. This maneuver is called bump drafting, and is not for the fainthearted or unskilled.
In 1959, the Daytona superspeedway opened for the first 500 mile race. Since then, it has become the single most popular motorsport event, surpassing even the Indianapolis 500 in viewers. It also carries the largest purse of any NASCAR race. The first race was won by Lee Petty, with a winning purse of $19,050. Last year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the race, taking home $1,506,363 in winnings.
This brings us to Kyle and Kurt Busch, and today’s race.
The Busch brothers, Kyle and older brother Kurt, are two of the most talented race car drivers in the world. Kurt won the Nextel (now Sprint) Cup in 2004, the highest achievement in NASCAR. However, both their careers have been tarnished by the fact they are aggressive and easily angered both on and off the track. Kurt has been fined for insulting racing officials in public, wrecking other drivers, and has had several run-ins with the law.
Kyle Busch has had his own brushes with the legal system. In 2011, he was caught driving his Lexus128 mph (206 km/h) in a 45 mph (72 km/h) speed zone. He got a $1,000 fine, thirty days of community service, one-year probation and his driver’s license suspended. Kyle apparently didn’t learn much from that. Last year he was caught doing 60 mph (97 km/h) in a 45 mph (72 km/h) zone. Not one to miss an opportunity to dig a hole deeper, he apparently gave the arresting officer some lip.
Kyle has been a regular post-race visitor to NASCAR President Mike Helton’s office.
When Mr. Helton sends for a driver after a race, the meeting is not voluntary. What was discussed is not public information, but Kyle Busch’s NASCAR fines for aggressive driving in races, including deliberately wrecking other competitors, run into to the tens of thousands of dollars.
Kurt, at age 36, has even more problems than younger brother Kyle. This may be due to the fact he is seven years older and has had more time to get into trouble. Clearly both these men have anger management problems. The elder Busch has a long reputation for being abusive toward his crew, and even has trouble getting along with his brother. There are very few active (and a few inactive) drivers with whom Kurt Busch has not clashed at one time or another. Like his younger brother, he has been a regular post-race invitee to Mr. Helton’s office.
Kurt also has the dubious distinction of being arrested by the Maricopa County, AZ sheriff’s department, which resulted in a suspension for the Phoenix race, plus the rest of that season.
The list of bad behavior both on and off the track is too long for a blog post. Anyone interested can find a summary here.
This week, Kurt Busch was suspended from racing for life. He has been convicted of domestic violence, including choking his girlfriend. From USA Today:
“A Delaware family court has found Kurt Busch to have “by a preponderance of the evidence … committed an act of domestic violence” against his ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, which required a protective order that was granted Monday.
In his reasoning, released Friday afternoon, Kent County commissioner David Jones said he believed Busch abused Driscoll “by manually strangling her by placing his left hand on her throat, while placing his right hand on her chin and face and smashing her head into the wall of his motor home, thereby recklessly placing (Driscoll) in reasonable fear of physical injury.”
NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch pending the outcome of the hearing. His Chevrolet sponsor dropped him immediately, not waiting for the ruling of the Court. Chevrolet has clearly had enough of his bad boy antics.
Kurt Busch appealed the suspension by NASCAR, but lost his second and final appeal Saturday (video at link). He had qualified to start in 24th position for the Daytona 500, so backup driver Regan Smith will take his place.
Younger brother Kyle had qualified in fourth place for today’s race. However, he was involved in a horrific crash yesterday, breaking a leg and foot. His car hit an inside wall of the track that did not have a SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier to cushion the impact.
Backup driver Matt Crafton will substitute for Kyle Busch.
Both Kurt and Kyle Busch make almost everybody’s list of the most disliked drivers in NASCAR, and in some cases, among the topmost disliked athletes in all of sports.
Regardless of what one feels about either driver, we never like to see that kind of crash, especially with serious injury or death. I was watching the 2001 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was killed. That fatal crash resulted in drastic changes in the rules and huge advances in developing safer equipment.
Several sportswriters have opined there is no excuse for any track to not have a SAFER barrier on any wall that faces the track. Even an infield wall dozens of yards from the track, such as the one Kyle Busch hit yesterday. I am inclined to agree with the general consensus. Given the amount of money involved in this level of sports, I can see little excuse for not having the barriers on all walls.
There are many fans and other drivers who are relieved today that neither Busch is on the track.
What do you think?