NASCAR Star Kurt Busch's Next Challenge: The Indianapolis 500

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIJanuary 24, 2014

Busch during Indy 500 rookie orientation in 2013
Busch during Indy 500 rookie orientation in 2013AJ MAST/Associated Press

He’s built a reputation in NASCAR as “the mouth that roars,” so when veteran driver Kurt Busch says he’s interested in racing in the Indianapolis 500, you’d better pay attention.

After all, this is the same Kurt Busch who professed his love of drag racing and then successfully went professional NHRA drag racing while strapped behind the wheel of a 200-plus mile per hour NHRA Pro Stock race car.

First, a brief bit of history:

While attending a NHRA event in North Carolina in 2007, Busch was asked to make a few exhibition runs down the quarter mile in his own Dodge Viper by then NHRA Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson. He obliged and immediately became hooked on drag racing.

Fast forward to 2011, as Busch hooks up with veteran driver and NHRA Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson’s team for the purposes of making licensing runs. He easily scored his competition license and on March 10 of that year, at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., Busch made his professional drag racing debut. He drove his way into a tough 16-car field, primarily on the back of a very fast race car. Not to take anything away from Busch, these 1400-plus horsepower, full-bodied race cars are extremely difficult to drive and travel the quarter mile in less than six-and-a-half seconds at speeds well over 210 miles per hour. 

Having gone professional drag racing, Busch entered an elite club made up of only three drivers who have crossed over between NASCAR and the NHRA. The other two members are John Andretti, who drove a Top Fuel dragster, and Richard Petty, who turned to drag racing in 1965, driving a Petty Blue Plymouth Barracuda in the factory experimental class. 

So, like I said, when Kurt Busch says he’s going to do something, you might want to listen.

Last May, he completed the mandatory rookie orientation program for the Indianapolis 500 behind the wheel of then-series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosports IndyCar. 

What was it like for the 35-year-old Busch to have no fenders, no roof and the wind buffeting his head while speeding around the famed Brickyard at speeds over 230 miles per hour?

"The kid in the candy store," was the way Busch described himself in a story that first appeared on following his first test session.

But, driving by yourself around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one thing. Doing it with 32 other cars around you is something else. And then there is the matter of funding and, most important, getting time behind the wheel. Busch had planned on racing in the IndyCar Series season finale on the two-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway in California last year, but because his team was part of NASCAR’s championship Chase, Busch opted to focus on that challenge instead, missing out on critical seat time.

And then there is the test of doing double duty.

Racing in both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, which are both run on the same day, has been done before by a number of NASCAR drivers, including Tony Stewart, John Andretti and Robby Gordon. Gordon almost won the event in 1999, when with two laps remaining, he ran out of fuel.

In spite of all these challenges, Busch does have an equal amount of positives working in his favor. His team owner in NASCAR is the aforementioned Stewart, who has already pledged his support of the effort. IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti, who is himself no stranger to the 500, has already pledged to have a car and crew available. And of course, Busch’s desire to do it—that is perhaps the strongest driving force of all.

There was a time in auto racing’s recent past when it was common for a driver to easily make the jump from one racing discipline to another. We now live in an era where sponsorship and time restraints prevent many drivers from doing the same thing.

That time thing. That may be what kills Busch’s effort this year. The Indianapolis 500 is the first oval race of the season for the IndyCar Series, which means Busch will not be able to get any seat time in an IndyCar on an oval prior to the 500. That lack of seat time, especially given the speeds at Indy, could prove to be a problem for Busch who, despite his obvious skill behind the wheel, might quickly find himself over his head and a danger to himself and others. 

The Indianapolis 500 calls itself “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” It is all that and more. The lure of being immortalized by having your face placed on the winner’s trophy is without question one of motorsports' strongest and most enduring siren songs. 

Will Busch overcome his challenges and succumb to its sweet sound? 

Let’s hope so.