Unlike other former NASCAR Sprint Cup champions, Kurt Busch kicked off the month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway attempting to pass his rookie test – for the IndyCar Series.
“For me to go up there and experience the track, experience an IndyCar and go through a rookie orientation — to have (IndyCar President of Race Operations) Brian Barnhart hand me my card and license at the end was really neat,” Busch said. “The way the team helped me get up to speed, it just shows how they’ve been doing it for years, that they’re one of the best groups out there, and to have (team owner) Michael Andretti put his arm around me and coach me through the whole experience, it was the chance of a lifetime.
“(IndyCar driver James) Hinchcliffe came by, and it was cool to have a current guy that’s been in the car to teach me about paddle shift and the pit-road limiter and all that stuff that’s current. Just to have Andretti’s wisdom and his guidance through the whole experience made it that much better.”
Busch developed a relationship with Andretti Autosport owner Andretti through their mutual agent John Caponigro last season when Busch interviewed with potential teams for 2013. At the time, Andretti was entertaining a possible entry into NASCAR and a possible partnership with Dodge. Since then, Busch signed with Furniture Row Racing to run in the Sprint Cup Series, where he is currently 20th in the points standings.
Busch has the blessing of FRR team owner Barney Visser to pursue this latest dream.
“It’s a bucket-list type item," he said. "It’s also because I have the heart and desire to do anything in motorsports. So to wrap my arms around, moreso of what can happen next, we’ve just got to let things sit on the burner here and see where it goes.”
Although this year’s Indianapolis 500 is not a practical option for Busch, he’s mentioned the possibility of racing in IndyCar events at Pocono Raceway, Milwaukee Mile and Auto Club Speedway. His mentor, “Hinch,” suggested the season finale at Auto Club because, as Busch says he told him, it’s a two-to-three-lane track and "that would be your best chance of not running into anything and staying out of the way."
“Honestly, you can’t expect to go in there and run top 10 right away, but if you’re doing it with Andretti, you’re going to have the best chance to run well,” Busch said of the championship organization. “Logistically, I haven’t even looked at (the schedule). My head’s spinning from doing 218 (mph in Thursday's rookie test) at Indianapolis.
“Today, we’re here at Darlington with our Cup car, and we have three hours of practice to get it dialed in for the Southern 500. When there’s time, we’ll sit down and have discussions about what could happen in the open-wheel world.”
Busch has never denied his need for speed. In 2011, he participated in the Gator Nationals with Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson. Busch, who finished fifth in his first start in the Brickyard 400 in 2001, found the speed behind the wheel of an IndyCar intriguing because, compared to a stock car, there’s no deceleration.
“You’re just at constant speed the whole time,” Busch said. “With a Cup car, you have to let off the gas, slow down for the corner. You have that deceleration rate, (and) that big heavy car doesn’t want to turn. Driving the IndyCar there at speed, full-throttle all the way around, gave me more of an appreciation for the track and the allure and the demands that it puts on a team and a driver with an open-wheel car at Indianapolis. It was quite the experience.
"Right away, pulling out on the back straightaway, open cockpit, the air’s hitting me in the face, when I’m doing 150, I’m like, ‘This is a different world.’ Then that settled in, and then it was the rookie orientation program where you work up your speed, and it was the first time where I said, ‘You ready?’ and I’m talking to myself on holding it wide open through a corner. That’s when the game changes. That’s when you cross into a threshold that really challenges you as a driver.”
Busch isn’t sure what opportunities exist in IndyCar, but just the chance to say he’s been on the yard of bricks in an open-wheel car is “a nice achievement.”
“When you’re teaming up with Andretti Autosport to do it, you hope you get that job done, and you want to do everything that they’re telling you to do, and to do it perfectly, and (Thursday) was that type of day,” Busch said. “To go 218 and to be on the rev chip in sixth gear on the first day — that’s pretty cool.
“Any opportunity in motorsports is what I’m looking for. I grew up in a stock car world. I’ve spent the last dozen years in the Sprint Cup garage. You never know what’s around the next turn. I’ve been full-throttle on a quarter-mile and full-throttle at Indianapolis. There’s a lot of cool things out there.”