Busch does the double, 10 years on: ‘I was like a kid in a candy store’

The checkered flag waves over the front straightaway at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for 31 of the 33 drivers in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 — or at least, those that were still running — that was where the adventure ended.

Race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay was obviously the first exception. He still had about six hours of media and PR commitments ahead that evening before he’d finally get to change out of his milk-soaked firesuit and find something for dinner, followed by an additional multi-day media tour before rocking up in Detroit and trying to refocus for a doubleheader at Belle Isle.

And the other one was his Andretti teammate Kurt Busch, who clambered from the No. 26 Honda, high-fived the team, jumped into a helicopter, a plane and another helicopter, and touched down on the infield grass at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was here that his adventure ended, albeit a little earlier than expected when his Stewart-Haas Chevy suffered an engine failure during NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. But by then he’d already accomplished his main mission — to become the first driver in 10 years to compete in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.


The sport has had to wait another 10 years for someone to try it again, and the weather this Sunday morning will be the first indicator of Kyle Larson’s chances of adding his name to the very short list of members of the “Double Club.” But the passing of time between Busch’s Indy run and the present day has also afforded the 2004 Cup Series champion with a more nuanced perspective on what he achieved on Memorial Day weekend a decade ago. And like a lot of good racing stories, it begins with a touch of coveting thy neighbor’s awesome race car.

“The way that it all worked out was, my years of racing for Roger Penske, and watching Sam Hornish win when I first signed on, and just being around the IndyCar in our NASCAR garage here in North Carolina, I just kept getting a bigger and bigger itch,” Busch tells RACER. “And Roger Penske’s like, ‘I need you to stay on the NASCAR side. You’re our stock car guy, you don’t need to go run Indy.’ So when I departed Penske, it gave me extra motivation to go and attempt this, and take a stock car kind of guy to the open-wheel world.

“I knew I could do good. I just had to find the right opportunity. And my agent [John Caponigro] helped with his connection with Andretti Autosport, and we were off to the races.”

Busch’s Andretti program came together in bits. His deal was officially announced in March of 2014, just under two months before the race, but he’d already tested with the team at the Speedway the previous year and had started getting to know engineering ace Craig Hampson, who’d been assigned to his car. He’d also been in the gym.

Busch heads out during Rookie Orientation in April of 2014. His fastest lap that day was a 220.884mph, which Busch was underwhelmed by at the time, although it was considerably quicker than the 217.742mph best from fellow “rookie” Jacques Villeneuve who took a refresher on the same day. Walt Kuhn/Motorsport Images

“January 1, I started working out differently to prepare for this, even though I didn’t get a contract with Andretti Autosport until later,” he says. “That [preparation] was to run three miles to the gym, and to do different martial arts, do different stretches and do different programs to challenge my body and to be ready. I had a great team behind me handling logistics on plane rides, helicopter rides, practice sessions, nutrition… it takes a full team to do it. And I was very blessed to have a good group of people.”

So, check marks all the way down the “preparation” column. Now it was time to wrap his head around the car.

“Just pulling out for rookie orientation and having bugs hit my visor again, I felt like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool. It reminds me of when I first started racing.’

“Then there’s rookie orientation and working up to full throttle all the way around. Then there was going into practice with other cars. That was definitely the toughest part, navigating the draft and how quick the cars would pull up to other cars. In IndyCar you need to be full throttle through the corner to keep the stagger and the rear end engaged properly, and you lift on the straightaway to set the car, where that’s total opposite with a stock car. So that was that discipline of making sure I didn’t unload the rear end in the corner and find trouble.

“When we went to qualifying trim; now I’m doing 230 miles an hour and my brain had never digested that before. After I did my first qualifying run, Tony Stewart pokes his head in and he goes, ‘Hey, did you lose the short chute?’ And I go, “Dude, exactly!” Like, Turn 1 turns into Turn 2, there is no short chute at that speed. It’s pretty wild.”

From Hampson’s seat on the pitstand, things were looking promising.

“In terms of driving style, I really didn’t think we had to work on him very much,” he says. “It’s just all the processes and procedures were different. Particularly at that stage of where a Cup car was versus an IndyCar. You know, he didn’t have a weight jacker, he didn’t have seamless upshift and downshift. He didn’t have all the telemetry and the data available. So that was all new to him.”

Busch had the driving part of the job covered, so for Hampson (above, left), the main focus early on was making sure his charge was comfortable with the processes specific to IndyCar, as well as the tools available in the car. Walt Kuhn/Motorsport Images

By the time qualifying rolled around, the team was in a good place. The problem was, Busch wasn’t always in the right place.

“We did two qualifying attempts on Saturday,” Hampson recalls. “I remember the first qualifying run, he did some things wrong — I don’t remember exactly what they were, but not quite right with gearshift strategy or chasing the tools with the weight jacker or the antiroll bars. But that shows that even the most experienced drivers… the pressure and the nerves of the moment get to a lot of people. But we knew it as soon as the run was over; we said, we know we can do better than that, and we’re going to run again, and we’re going to do better. And we did.

“But the difference between what he was faced with and Larson was faced with last Sunday [in qualifying] is that Kurt had to leave to go down to Charlotte for something with the All-Star race on Saturday evening, so what Kurt didn’t have the opportunity to do was run in the better conditions later in the day, to make his run when conditions were better to try to put it in the Fast Nine. I remember vividly thinking, ‘Man, it’s a shame he has to leave because I think we could get it into the Fast Nine.’ But he’s got to go, he’s got his primary job. So I think he was out of there at, like, three o’clock.

“We were sitting in an OK spot when at the point he was leaving, but I knew when the conditions got better, people were going to knock us down and we wouldn’t have any chance to respond because he wasn’t there.

“There was also one day of practice during the week that he couldn’t be there. That was actually an interesting day for me, because I didn’t have a car to run. So I went up in the Turn 3 spotter stand, which I had never been to before or since, and I tried to experience the event from a different vantage point and understand what the spotters do, because I didn’t have a driver that day.”

Despite his early exit during qualifying Busch put the car 12th on the starting grid, sharing the fourth row with Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon. So far, so good.

“I saw some of the data after some of my qualifying runs and I saw what [James] Hinchcliffe was up to,” Busch recalls. “Hinchcliffe looked at me and gave me a wink. Like, I was on the right path. He wasn’t going to define it, but I was able to find that in the data and that’s when things started to slow down for me.”

As with Larson and Arrow McLaren this year, Busch stepped into an Andretti Autosport team that had its Indy 500 setup well dialed in. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

The entire process of getting Busch up to speed had been relatively painless. Busch’s innate talent was part of the equation there, as was the raft of data and feedback coming in from across Andretti’s five-car fleet. It also didn’t hurt that the Andretti cars were absolute rocketships.

“We were in a really good situation, similar to where Larson finds himself this year with McLaren,” says Hampson. “We had one of the best setups and the best team situations at Indy at that point, so the setup was very under control. There weren’t a lot of question marks for things we should be doing with aerodynamics or springs or shock absorbers. So the most important thing was making small changes to keep him comfortable and the handling to his liking, but making sure we didn’t wander too far away from what our teammates were doing because clearly the team was going to be in contention.”

But the Speedway is easily angered, as Busch discovered when he returned to the track to continue practicing on the Monday after qualifying and crashed heavily in Turn 2.

“Kurt studied very hard and he listened very intently, to the point that I feel like I ended up making a mistake with him,” Hampson says. “I felt he was doing such a good job, I stopped thinking about him as a rookie. And ultimately that did bite us in the Monday practice right after qualifying. I said then, and I will say now, it was probably good that that happened when it did, because if we hadn’t crashed there, we likely would’ve crashed in the race.”

Busch concurs.

“It was a big hit,” Busch says. “But in all honesty, if I didn’t make that mistake on that practice day, I would’ve done that same mistake on lap 30 of the race and I’d have been done. I learned so much from that. And it really put things into perspective of, my confidence was building, I had a couple wiggles, I had a couple saves. I should have pulled in at that point and evaluated what changes the team had made to the car, as well as what I did in the cockpit. We went through that afterwards and that’s what really helped me find that comfort on race day.”

“He learned what he shouldn’t have done,” Hampson agrees. “And then did a much better job in the race because of it. It obviously cost money and parts and effort on the part of the mechanics, but I think it was an excellent lesson to have learned. But some of that is on me because he was doing such a good job and clearly had such a very extensive oval racing résumé that I just kind of lulled myself into relaxing a little too much and not keeping on top of all the things you would want to keep on top of with a rookie. He just got caught out by a traffic situation with a car that he had dialed into being a little too neutral. And therefore, knew not to do that in the race.”

Race day. There was a wonderful photo taken a few years ago of Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and others — drivers with about a million combined Indy 500 starts between them — sitting in the green room on race morning. They’re together but alone, each driver in quiet contemplation of what the next few hours will bring. Busch could relate.

“Sunday morning, with 300,000 people there and cameras, sponsors, just the pageantry of it all, I had to block that out,” he says. “I had to get into race mode and I didn’t take in the whole atmosphere on race day morning because I said, ‘I have to be a professional and I have to be a race car driver right now.’

“With running Daytona for so many years and running the Brickyard [400], that’s just like putting on an old pair of jeans. But that morning of the Indy 500 was a whole different ball of wax. It felt like I was a rookie again at my first Daytona 500. And so that’s where I had to use those years of experience to block out the emotions.”

Green flag.

“I felt comfortable… probably around lap 50 of the race,” Busch chuckles. “It took until then until I got the adrenaline calmed down, and when I got to lap 100, I took another tool out of my toolbox and said, ‘All right, you’re about done learning. Apply everything you have now.’ And that’s when I was able to start moving up.”

Helping Busch’s cause was the fact that the entire first half of the race was run under green flag conditions, which spared him from having to grapple with restarts and gave him the bandwidth to focus on things like fuel burn-off, tire wear and remembering fundamentals like resetting his adjustments after each pit stop. The pit stops, too, were sharp.

Busch admits it took time for him to settle into the race, but once he did, the No. 26 Honda started climbing up the order. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

“Next thing you know, we’re running ninth, and that was way better than I expected,” Busch says. “And then you want more.  You want to find other things to do to pass cars or to block others. I got lucky with a couple other guys having some trouble, and that helped us move up to sixth.”

The one nervous moment came after lap 191, when Townsend Bell crashed heavily in Turn 2 and brought out a red flag. It took 11 minutes for the track workers to clean up the debris and repair the barrier, which was 11 minutes that Busch didn’t have.

“It was a little awkward thinking that I was going to be late for the Coke 600,” he says. “But at the same time, I just made my way through all of that shrapnel and debris from Townsend Bell’s wreck, and luckily I didn’t have a tire puncture. Here I am sitting sixth, and I said, ‘If I get a strong restart and get a run, I’ve got a chance here to work my way into the top three.’ I tried to pass Juan Pablo Montoya on the outside of Turn 1 with about four laps to go and watched him put a huge block on me. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m pretty good here. I’m about ready to finish sixth. I don’t need to be in the marbles to be wrecked.’ He was elbows out, ready for me.

“I remember taking the checkered and hopping up out of the cockpit, and it was a reason to celebrate. It was a huge moral victory in a sense. We did, I think, one interview, and the next thing you know, I’m in the helicopter headed to Charlotte. And that’s where you have to, again, put the blinders on, put the race mindset back into the focus of the 600.”

“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty good result,’” Hampson says. “From where we were with having crashed the car on Monday and a driver who’s never done this before, I felt really good about that.

“You always want to finish higher, but I really do think where we finished, that was about the best I could have hoped for. I came away from the month with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and he did a fantastic job.

Fans watch Busch’s helicopter descend into the Charlotte infield ahead of the Coca-Cola 600. Matt Thacker/Motorsport Images

“Then of course we watched the Charlotte race that evening; we’re like, ‘That’s our guy. We’re cheering for him now.’ It was a super-cool experience. I have stayed in touch with Kurt — we text every now and then. I obviously was in touch with him after his concussion problems. I saw him at Nashville last year. It was a very nice experience for me, and it was great to get to know him.”

“That evening, after we broke a valve spring and didn’t get to finish the Coca-Cola 600, I still felt like I had enough energy to run another race,” Busch says. “The adrenaline of it all settled over the next few weeks. And the people reaching out congratulating me, the team… it lasted quite a long time.

“One funny story is, I went back up to Indy for the banquet and the celebration where they hand out the checks, and it’s a nice dinner. And when I got my chance to speak as Rookie of the Year, I said, ‘Yeah, last week when we ran the race…’ and it just slipped out like that. That’s what it felt like, like a week just had gone by. So everybody’s laughing and I’m like, ‘Oh, it was yesterday.’”

There was talk at the time that Busch might come back for another swing at the double in 2015.

“It was close,” Busch says. “It all would’ve worked out again. It was just a matter of some of the main sponsors wanting to be involved, and the ROI was huge. The amount of social media posts, media… it was all worth it to do it again. It’s just that that full effort does take away quite a bit of focus from the Cup car. And that’s where I just settled back in and said, ‘You know what, I’m a NASCAR guy and I want to try to get a second championship over here.’

“And I would say that one of my best years in NASCAR Cup racing was 2015. It was the year after, because I used all of that same mentality and preparation and structure to make a run in 2015, and in NASCAR it was one of my best years.”

Busch and Hampson didn’t get an opportunity to work together again after the 2014 Indy 500, but they remain friends to this day. Image via Craig Hampson

Hampson suspects that had Busch returned, he may well have found himself brushing up against a glass ceiling. Getting within striking range of the establishment, as Busch did in 2014 is one thing, but that first 98 percent is the easy-ish part. If you want to find what separates the good from the great in IndyCar, you have to look in the margins.

“The question is, are you coming back and going to be able to win?” Hampson says. “Because if you come back for a second year, now the expectation is you’re going to contend for the victory; otherwise, what’s the point? And then the open question is, can you contend for the win if you aren’t doing this week in, week out? Just all the details about starts and restarts, the pit entry and the pit exit… that’s always the hard part, right? As you get up into the thin air, all the little bits are that much harder to achieve.

“Clearly a fast car makes a big difference, but I don’t know if we could have topped a sixth place. There’s a lot of factors that come in. Do you have the right engine that year? Have you made good advancements on your setup over the winter? Has another team pulled forward of your guys? It’s never an automatic around this place.”

Busch retired from competition last year. Freed from the constant push to look ahead to the next race, he now has an opportunity to look back and appreciate the journey.

“Indy was a career top-five moment,” he says. “It was a mental and spiritual adventure to push myself to do something that unique and different. To have won a championship in NASCAR, to have won Daytona [in 2017], to have qualified an NHRA Pro Stock car at the Gatornationals… there’s those top five-type moments. And Indy will forever be one of those special ones where it was a sixth-place finish, but it was my one and only IndyCar start, and it turned out to be a beautiful result.”

Story originally appeared on Racer