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Busch/Penske marriage more dramatic than divorce

by Dave Grayson
Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Kurt Busch (top) and Roger Penske (bottom) were not a good match to begin with
The recent announcement from Penske Racing that said that Kurt Busch would no longer be the driver of their #22 Dodge, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, effective immediately caught many observers a little off guard. Described in an official press release as "a mutual parting of the ways", both team owner Roger Penske and driver Kurt Busch both insisted that the dissolving of their racing partnership was mutual and amicable despite reports that said Busch was fired from the team due to inappropriate behavior displayed during the final race of the season.
After leaving the race on the third lap due to a broken transmission, Busch waved a middle finger at a live ESPN Network television camera while driving through the garage area. This was followed by extreme vulgar language aimed at a television reporter because Busch felt he had been kept waiting too long for a live interview.
This incident was the latest round of a season's worth of tirades from Busch both on and off the track. NASCAR officials finally decided they had seen and heard enough and levied a $50,000 fine against the driver. Now it appears that Penske Racing and their primary sponsor, Shell/Pennzoil, has also decided that they had enough.
As dramatic as Busch's latest tirade has become, it pales in comparison to the circumstances that led to his racing partnership with Penske to begin with. The pairing dates back to August of 2005 and involves two Sprint team owners who found themselves having to line up replacements for two retiring race drivers.
Jack Roush, the owner and founder of what is now known as Roush Fenway Racing, was looking at prospects to replace Mark Martin who was planning on retiring at the end of 2005. He was also having to deal with occasional outbursts from a young Kurt Busch. At the time Roush found a way to live with those outbursts because Busch, the year before, had delivered the organization's first ever NASCAR championship.
Meanwhile Penske South Racing was looking at prospects to replace Rusty Wallace who was also retiring at the end of the 2005 season. Penske was interested in placing Busch in his car. Roush was interested in acquiring the services of Jamie McMurray who at the time was under contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. The problem was both drivers were under contract with their respective teams through the end of 2006. The result was one of the most amazing contract negotiations in NASCAR history.
On August 9, 2005 Penske Racing South announced that they had signed Busch as the driver of their #2 Miller Lite Dodge beginning with the 2007 season. This announcement followed a meeting between Busch and Roush where the driver assured his owner that he was fully committed to defending his Sprint Cup championship as well as the remainder of his contract. It was at this point where Busch informed Roush of his intent to leave his organization at the end of the 2006 season. There was also discussion regarding the possibility of Busch being released from his contract early so he could join Penske Racing in 2006 but it was clear that the decision was completely up to Roush.
This was followed by speculation that said souvenir sales was a major catalyst in Busch's decision to sign with Penske. It was pointed out that Roush controls most of his driver's souvenir sales and driver personal services contracts must also be funneled through him. Under normal circumstances drivers can make as much as $2 million per year, beyond their regular salary, from their share of these souvenirs.
In mid August of 2005 Roush stated that he was still "on the fence" regarding granting Busch an early release while, at the same time, continued to negotiate with Chip Ganassi regarding acquiring the services of McMurray. However, a month later it appeared that the three team owners were reported to be close to a deal. It was Rusty Wallace who let it slip out that the attorneys were close to working out a contract agreement.
In early November of 2005 an official announcement came from Roush that said Busch had been released from his contract and was now free to join Penske for the 2006 season. A similar announcement came from Ganassi which said he had released McMurray which cleared the way for the driver to join Roush. No specific details were released but it was widely believed that a lot of money exchanged hands. Penske was reported to have financially compensated Roush to get Busch while Roush in turn compensated Ganassi for McMurray.
At this point it seemed that everyone was happy and ready to get busy with preparations for the upcoming 2006 NASCAR season. However, for Penske Racing that euphoria quickly turned into a public relations nightmare a mere four days later. That's when Kurt Busch hit the national headlines following his November 11, 2005 arrest near Phoenix-Arizona.
According to reports from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, Busch was clocked at 60 MPH in a 45 zone in the vicinity of the Phoenix International Raceway. At first Busch didn't stop his car and fled the scene where it was reported that he ran a stop sign and was driving erratically. Once he pulled over, he was reported to be belligerent and uncooperative. He was given a field sobriety test which he easily passed with a blood alcohol count of .017 well below the legal intoxication level of 08. But it was his attitude that led to the decision to transport him to the Sheriff's Command Post located at the race track where he was issued a citation and released.
In the aftermath Roush Fenway Racing suspended Busch from participation in the final two races of the 2005 season and said his public behavior was in violation of contract obligations with his, then, primary sponsor Crown Royal. An angry Geoff Smith, President of Roush Fenway Racing, declared that "we are tired of apologizing for Kurt Busch."
Meanwhile Roger Penske issued a statement that said he "stands behind Kurt Busch." The statement also said Penske had spoken with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department about "doing something with the community and working things out." At the time this statement was somewhat puzzling because its meaning wasn't exactly clear.
Following some delays, often associated with court cases, the legal matter was resolved in February of 2006. Busch was fined $580 and ordered to complete 50 hours of community service. The following April of that year Busch performed his obligations participating in a safe driving public service announcement, with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, that aired on Arizona television stations. At the time of the production Arpaio said he was "pleasantly surprised how gracious this man was despite the controversy."
The last surprise from this story came in November of 2006, nearly one year after the arrest, when Busch once again appeared in Sheriff Arpaio's office. This time he was given a badge and officially became an honorary deputy.
In March of 2006 Penske's faith in Busch was confirmed when the team won the race at Bristol. It was Busch's first win for his new team and the first Cup win for Penske Racing since 2004.
That's pretty much the story of how Roger Penske took a ride on the Kurt Busch crazy train. During the course of his six year tenure with Penske there were frequent tirades from this driver. The majority of them were often ignored because, frankly, Kurt Busch is a highly talented race driver who often produced positive results. Those results included 16 wins.
However during the 2011 season it seemed that Busch had amped up the intensity of his dramatic tirades. This was especially true of the in car radio transmissions during a race. The verbal abuse that Busch aimed at his team  was often brutal. It didn't seem to matter that Roger Penske himself was listening in on a team radio. There was a famous moment during a race this year when Penske actually came over the radio and said "Kurt, just shut up and drive the car."
In a situation like this, the good performance stats of a driver can only be stretched so far before that proverbial line is crossed. The crossing of the line came at the Homestead Miami season finale race last month. Busch's middle finger performance entering the garage area was bad enough. But it was the profane language aimed at ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch that ultimately turned the tide against Busch. While this particular tirade never actually made it to live television, it was recorded by someone standing in the crowd. In a matter of minutes the entire episode went viral on "You Tube" and by that evening was seen by thousands of race fans.
It was at this point when even Roger Penske, often described as one of the most patient men in motorsports, decided enough was enough. Although a press statement said Busch's departure from the team was by mutual agreement, it's widely believed that his sponsors, Shell/Pennzoil were extremely angry and wanted no further embarrassment from this driver.
Needless to say the official press statements were carefully worded works of art authored by some well trained corporate spin doctors. The Roger Penske statement said: "I appreciate the victories that Kurt Busch has brought Penske Racing and our sponsors over the past six years. While I am disappointed that Kurt will not be racing for our team in the future, both Kurt and I felt that separating at this time was best for all parties, including our team and our sponsors. I wish Kurt the best in his future racing endeavors."
The Kurt Busch statement said: "I am grateful to Penske Racing for six very productive years. Together we won a lot of races-16 in all. Leaving a great organization and a lucrative contract is not easy, but it's an important step for me and allows me to take a deep breath to work on things that can make me a better driver and a better person. I want to personally thank Roger for the opportunity that he has given me."
Somehow, both statements remind me of an old advertising logo for Seven Up: "crisp and clean and no caffeine."

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