BETHESDA, Md. — With practiced briskness, Kurt Busch pulls on a pair of rubber surgical gloves and slips into a disposable hospital smock — both non-negotiable requirements for a visit to a third-floor room in the Critical Care Unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
There is anger in the eyes of the wounded soldier lying on the hospital bed, connected to a wall of IV drips and vital-sign monitors.
That’s not quite accurate. The bed sheets drawn up to the stomach fail to hide a stark reality — that the soldier propped up at a 30-degree angle is really half a soldier. An improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan, on his third tour of combat duty, removed his legs and everything else up to the lower torso.
The remains of his organs are held in by mesh.
But the anger is real, and so is the sense of bewilderment, as the 24-year-old soldier named Joseph contemplates a life without walking, without unaided motion, without sex.
On July 9, Joseph is not quite six weeks removed from the explosion that blew away the lower half of his body.
“It’s rare that you see someone who’s that angry this early,” Patricia Driscoll would say later.
Driscoll is Kurt Busch’s girlfriend, a powerful counterweight to a mercurial former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion trying to find balance in his life.
Driscoll also is president and CEO of the Armed Forces Foundation, and in that capacity, she has moved mountains for Joseph and his family. When labor union red tape threatened to prevent Joseph’s father from sharing what might have been the last days of his son’s life, Driscoll used a combination of persuasion and clout to bring the father to Walter Reed without fear of losing his job.
Busch tries to break the ice with Joseph, who has had little exposure to NASCAR racing. The meeting is halting at first, but during a visit that lasts nearly an hour, the driver and the soldier achieve a rapport. Joseph revisits the day his life changed forever.
“When you get hit with an IED, it’s supposed to knock you unconscious,” Joseph said. “That didn’t happen to me. I remember everything. I felt everything. . . .”
Despite his ordeal, Joseph is surprisingly strong. He exercises his arms using tethers suspended from a bar above his bed. Busch discovers just how strong Joseph is when he challenges the solider to a good-natured bout of arm wrestling.
At the end of the visit, Busch signs NASCAR hero cards for Joseph and his family. Joseph promises to tune in to the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races at New Hampshire, and there is every sense he will keep that promise.
As they leave the room, Driscoll slips a check for $3,000 to Joseph’s father to help with bills at home while he stays with his son at the hospital.
Busch’s visit to Walter Reed was an impromptu drop-in during a spare moment in a whirlwind schedule of travel and personal appointments. What once was an expectation and obligation of his celebrity now is a mission close to the driver’s heart.
Credit for the attitude change, at least in part, goes to Driscoll, a dynamo who routinely does yeoman work for wounded soldiers and their families. With her foundation offices in the shadow of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Driscoll moves comfortably and adroitly among legislators, movers and shakers in the nation’s capital, in meetings at Walter Reed, or over dinner at the Capitol Hill Club.
Her dedication to her causes is as contagious as her dedication to her driver/boyfriend is steadfast. With her own money and her own home in Ellicott City, Md. — a stone Victorian that’s captivating in its intricacy and decor — Driscoll is every bit as independent as Busch is. Neither is the dominant partner, and that’s an adjustment for Busch.
“Kurt once said, ‘You could just leave me,’ ” Driscoll recalls. “I said, ‘You could do the same thing.’ ”
There’s no indication, however, that either Busch or Driscoll is about to opt out of the relationship, despite the challenges of their respective, separate professions or the recent roadblocks to Busch’s Cup career.
In fact, Driscoll has remained constant in her affection for Busch in the face of his own anger issues and his own sense of bewilderment at not being able to gain traction with NASCAR’s fan base, despite his undeniable talent behind the wheel.
In a series that features the world’s best stock-car drivers, Busch is an elite talent, one of the five best pure drivers in the sport. Beyond that, he knows the workings of a car inside and out, a talent he began to acquire at age 2, when his father, Tom Busch, handed him a piece of sandpaper and told him to go to work.
Busch’s value to any organization that might employ him is multiplied by the precise feedback he can provide. Contemplating life after racing, Busch talks of a possible career as a test driver for a manufacturer, and, indeed, the ability to evaluate a racing program is one of the reasons why he already has bona fide offers for next season — with quality teams.
That Busch is driving for underfunded Phoenix Racing and owner James Finch this season is no reflection of his talent. It is a commentary on a career during which Busch has, at times, been his own worst enemy. When his blood is up, particularly during the first 10 minutes after climbing from his race car — and particularly when things haven’t gone well on the race track — Busch often can’t tell friend from foe.
Long before his off-track issues came to a head, Busch won his championship with Roush Racing in 2004, the inaugural season of the Chase for the Sprint Cup format.
“I stole the championship in 2004, because we figured out how to work the Chase,” Busch says.
But Busch and crew chief Jimmy Fennig deserve more credit than that. They waited until the 10-race Chase to use all seven of their tests — the limit before NASCAR imposed its testing ban at the end of the 2008 season. The strategy paid off with a closely contested title.
In 2005, still driving for Roush, Busch opted to sign with Penske Racing for the 2006 season. Busch says it cost him millions to extricate himself from the contract with Roush, even to the point of paying for the ASA (American Speed Association) program Roush had funded for his brother Kyle.
In 2006, Busch married Eva Bryan, whom he had met three years earlier on a blind date set up by his spotter, Jeremy Brickhouse. The couple separated in 2011 and divorced.
“I got married because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do,” Busch says. “I went to Penske because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do for my career.”
But the white button-down shirt that embodies Penske Racing was as ill-fitting as the wedding coat. Busch left his ride with the organization in 2011, after an angry confrontation with an ESPN camera crew during the season finale at Homestead rendered his position with the organization untenable.
With limited options at the end of the year, Busch signed on with Finch for the 2012 campaign. He also agreed to split the Nationwide Series schedule in the No. 54 Toyota fielded by his brother.
In April at Richmond, Busch reminded those who might have forgotten just how talented he is, holding off fast-closing Denny Hamlin and giving Kyle his first Nationwide win as a team owner. A week later, Busch got rave reviews for adopting the Ricky Bobby persona and quoting lines from the movie “Talladega Nights” in the Cup car at Talladega.
Subsequent incidents at Darlington, where Busch drove through Ryan Newman’s pit box after both drivers had wrecked, and Dover, where Busch answered a reporter’s question with a sarcastic threat, negated the good will from Richmond and Talladega.
The first incident landed Busch on probation, and the second violated the probation, earning Busch a suspension from competition at Pocono in June. The suspension also put Busch’s tenure with Finch in jeopardy, but his crew — racers all — voted unanimously to keep the driver behind the wheel.
Busch rewarded them with a victory in Finch’s Nationwide car July 6 at Daytona. Some 36 hours later, at 6 a.m. on Sunday, July 8, he and Driscoll were on a plane bound for New York City to watch his beloved Chicago Cubs take on the Mets at Citi Field.
Busch is a baseball fanatic. To keep things interesting between innings, he plays a game that involves a modest wager. Everyone kicks in a dollar every half inning, and the participants rotate “turns” when the umpire rolls the baseball toward the pitcher’s mound after the third out.
If the ball stays on the mound and does not touch grass, the designated participant for that half inning gets all the money in the pot. This goes on for the entire game.
At Citi Field, Busch and Driscoll take a break from the 96-degree heat with a visit to a nearby air-conditioned club, but Busch quickly gets stir crazy away from the action. He wanders into a sky box, the food-service portion of which is empty, and takes a seat.
Moments later, shortstop Starlin Castro homers over the left field wall to give the Cubs a 7-0 lead. Busch jumps to his feet, raises his arms and cheers loudly. That exhibition catches the attention of the owner of the box, an ardent Mets fan who has paid dearly for his choice seats.
“I’m sorry,” he says with forced politeness, “but this is a private box.”
“No problem,” says Busch, adding as he exits, “That guy looks like some dotcom billionaire.”
The day ends with a plane ride from New York to Boston and a Yankees vs. Red Sox matchup at Fenway Park. At 7 the next morning, Busch and Driscoll are back on the plane, headed for Baltimore-Washington Airport and a full day of activity that includes the trip to Walter Reed.
Before Busch and Driscoll go separate ways — she to the hospital and he to a doctor’s appointment — they stop by Bean Hollow, a coffee shop in Ellicott City, a pleasant haven in suburban Maryland with the look and feel of a small European town.
A familiar face at Bean Hollow, Busch mixes easily with the locals, sharing small talk over a cup of coffee.
As friends and casual observers alike will attest, the Kurt Busch away from the racetrack can be markedly different from the Kurt Busch behind the wheel. The challenge is integrating those two aspects.
It’s a problem that has led to much soul-searching of late. Busch is acutely self-aware — until he gets behind the wheel and, like the car he drives, operates without a governor.
As co-driver with his brother, Busch spends his time at the Nationwide races he’s not scheduled to drive on top of Kyle’s pit box. From the start, it has been an eye-opening experience.
“I listen to Kyle on the radio when he’s driving the car, and I can’t believe how bad it is,” Busch says. “I asked myself, ‘Am I really like that?’ (when the roles are reversed).”
Busch has always struggled to find the right niche, the right public image. He ponders the idea of adopting the nickname “The Outlaw,” a moniker suggested by a Los Angeles clothing designer friend who sees Busch as Robin Hood, competing on an unsponsored team against the well-heeled giants of the sport.
But a bad-guy image has its pitfalls. Where Tony Stewart can be deliberately ornery and demeaning to the media, only to salvage the situation with his personal charm, Busch’s mistrust of the press — to the point of palpable fear of saying the wrong thing when the cameras are on — gets in the way.
“I’m just not good at being bad,” Busch says.
But he is good at driving a car, and he is making progress on the personal side. After a superb drive at Sonoma in late June, Busch finished third in the Cup race there, dogging winner Clint Bowyer until contact with a tire barrier damaged the No. 51 Chevrolet he was driving for Finch.
Bitterly disappointed at falling short of victory, Busch nevertheless took the loss with extraordinary grace. The Kurt Busch who answered questions in the press room was perhaps the most disarmingly genuine reporters had ever seen within the confines of a racetrack.
Genuine, too, is his undisguised affection for Driscoll, but that relationship isn’t the only recent change to Busch’s life. He has bonded with Driscoll’s 7-year-old son from a prior marriage. He has eliminated alcohol from his diet–having drunk his last beer the week he was suspended from the Pocono race–because, at 33, he doesn’t want to give up any edge he might have to younger drivers.
Busch is talking to a handful of teams about prospects for next year, and he will have opportunities to resurrect his career.
How successfully he does so will depend on how effectively the Kurt Busch of the ballpark can take charge of the Kurt Busch of the racetrack.
That is his greatest challenge.
It is also his greatest hope.