Monday, February 23, 2015

A few hours with Kurt Busch

I spent a few hours riding PR shotgun with several NASCAR drivers during my corporate career. Kurt Busch was one of them.

Busch was driving for Roger Penske at the time, and Penske's organization knew how to partner with corporate sponsors, each of whom spends millions to affix their logos on race cars, drivers' fire suits, and so on.
By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication
Specialist Seaman John Suits.Hutcher at
en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Busch was then a previous NASCAR champion, but known for a fiery temper on the track. Yet, during a day's worth of local media interviews, meet-and-greets with corporate employees, and visits with hospitalized kids, Busch was consistently polite and patient. He posed for photos with strangers, did interviews that wouldn't be seen outside a small upstate TV market, and autographed die-cast cars for use in charity auctions.
He was no hothead that day. And a pleasure to work with. He even let me drive.

So, when a judge last week decided Busch had likely physically abused a girlfriend in his trackside motor home, and NASCAR suspended him, I paused. He actually hadn't been convicted. And he hadn't exhibited behavior of that type during his short visit to our town.

But, that was then. This is now, when NASCAR and every other major sports entity has the hindsight of watching the NFL mismanage last year's Ray Rice domestic violence episode. And NASCAR recently saw a few short-fused drivers trading insults and punches after a race or two. So, the racing sanctioning organization took steps that will keep Busch out of a race car indefinitely.

I'm not alone in thinking the Ray Rice case has changed the way pro sports address domestic violence. For the better. At the same time, I know a few hours escorting a NASCAR driver around Rochester, NY is no barometer of his psychological state.

But look at Busch's prior racing-related dust-ups, which led to Penske dismissing him in 2011 after he verbally abused an ESPN reporter. There could be a pattern that suggests NASCAR acted to head off a larger issue.

I don't know if Kurt Busch will drive professionally again. But the PR guy in me is glad NASCAR didn't let the situation simmer, boil, and attract prolonged media scrutiny.