The Racing Capital
of the World
May 29, 2016
May 09, 2013 | By Marshall Pruett
You know those few and cherished memories most of us have—the ones that live with you like they just happened yesterday?
Ask Kurt Busch about the day he spent driving the Rahal Letterman Racing Champ Car, and despite it taking place back in 2003, and his voice changes tone--rises in intensity—like he just got out of the cockpit after being shot around the 1.9-mile Sebring circuit in RLR’s Lola-Ford Indy car.
Busch was Ford’s hottest prospect at the time, making his crossover open-wheel test a perfect promotional exercise for the Blue Oval. But soon-to-be Sprint Cup champion Busch didn’t head to central Florida with a Ford marketing initiative on his mind.
And the same is true for Busch’s first run in a modern Dallara DW12 Indy car, powered by Chevy this time, as he tests for Andretti Autosport on Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Sure, the PR value is clear for IMS, the IZOD IndyCar Series and for the Bowtie, but Busch isn’t wired for driving at half-speed and simply posing for the cameras.
Just as I witnessed a few weeks ago at Circuit of the Americas when Busch sampled a V8 Supercar, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion wants to know everything about the vehicle, the series and what it will take to earn respect while driving whatever he’s strapped into.
And the same was true when he climbed into Michel Jourdain’s 850-horsepower Champ Car rocket in 2003.
“Dan Davis was the director of Ford Motorsport at the time, and he put the bug in my ear, ‘Hey, want to drive an Indy car?…’” Busch said. "And I was like, ‘Heck, yeah,’ I didn't even hesitate. It reminded me of when my dad was helping me start out in racing. We had a Legend car and then we had a Hobbystock and we had a Modified. And then that turned into this American Race Truck series and it just, it was like whatever I could get my hands on and drive it and experience it, I wanted to do it.
“The art of guys like A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, it’s gone, in a sense. Everybody is so specialized in what they do, you have to do what you do very well to be able to have the chance to go do other things, that makes it difficult to master another form of motorsport, and I’ve always wanted to be like those guys. The guys who aren’t afraid to try something different and figure out how to get the most out of it.”
Coming off a third-place finish in the 2002 Sprint Cup standings, Busch was a perfect candidate to jump into the unknown at Sebring.
His Ford Cup car and the Ford-powered Champ Car were in the same ballpark on power, but with half the weight and about a million times the downforce, it took Busch a little while to acclimate himself to the roofless, fenderless open-wheel car and all its vagaries.
“It had quite a few qualities that were different,” he said. “And then as the racer that I am, it's four tires and a racetrack. So I was supposed to go around that track as quick as I could. But when I jumped in the car, I pulled it out of pit road after I stalled it, of course. It was cool to see the front tires rolling. When you're in an open cockpit, now you see a lot of the terrain and the horizon in a different way. You see a lot more of your surroundings. And it reminded me a little bit of the Modified that I drove when I was growing up racing. You could see the front tires rolling.
"And that's the calmness that I tried to bring into that new situation; all right, I've done this before, there's something familiar. All right, the sequential gearbox, that was the next step. And that was like my Legend car where it's a motorcycle gearbox in those Legend cars, well, the sequential gearbox in the Champ Car was very similar. And I’d been in cars that push into the seat pretty hard, so that wasn’t unexpected.”
What was unexpected, however, was the rate of speed the Lola-Ford motored down Sebring’s various straights and then came to an abrupt halt in the braking zones.
“The one element that I had never experienced before in (NASCAR) was to be able to press on the brake pedal as hard as I could at high speed and not lock up a tire,” he said with a sense of bewilderment. “Like my brain and my foot can only communicate up to 800 pounds of pedal pressure, that's a number that we see when we’re testing in NASCAR and how you make a Cup car slowdown. (The Champ Car) just got out of the corner and into the next one like you were seeing warp speed or something.
“So we put my data lap on and overlaid it to Michel Jourdain, and he's pushing 1,400 pounds of pedal pressure in certain corners. And I'm like, ‘Wait a minute, my brain and my foot won't allow me to do that.’ It says I’m supposed to lock up a tire. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me today…”
The thousands of pounds of downforce Busch had at his disposal was largely to blame for the confusion, and there were more oddities that cropped up as he learned the car during four 10-lap outings.
“So there was a lot of fun and learning the car, the brakes, the transmission, but then there were times I was going on the back straightaway at 180 miles an hour in an open cockpit and my helmet’s trying to lift off my head...” he said with a laugh. “ You have all these new elements that you're just trying to check off your list and then you start to feel comfortable with the car. And in (an) Indy car when your tires are cold, it's hard to make lap time. And the more laps that you make, well, the more fuel you’re burning off and the more heat you’re getting on your tires, so it's just the exact opposite of a Cup car.
“Cup cars, you need the fresh tires right away and all the weight, and you burn the good right off your tires on the first few laps. Whereas, in the Indy car I made my fastest lap easily on my last lap before I spun on my final run. So it's just a different discipline. It was fun for me to learn – I guess in a nutshell here – it was fun to learn different disciplines. It’s just a lot of fun to try my hand at different forms of motorsports.”
Busch spun as he was feeling out where the Lola’s mechanical grip ended and the car’s prodigious downforce took over in the corners, and said the phantom power of aerodynamic download was an odd sensation to encounter. But he worked up to experience it in a methodical manner.
“The Sebring track doesn't have too many high-speed corners that you challenge the car at 130 miles an hour, but I think the aerodynamics kick in when you're rolling off pit road, honestly,” he said jokingly. “And so you have to rate the speed – now, I might even do it wrong, this is what I did to put my nerves and uneasiness about the whole situation at bay, is I rated each of the corners with a level of speed. So if this corner was 130 miles an hour, I’m like: ‘All right, I've got good downforce. If this corner’s a 40 mile-an-hour corner, then I've got no downforce.’ And then when I was wide open going down this kink on the back straightaway, I was wide open, top gear and knew it's going to stick, no problem.
“The way that I gauged it was the heaviness of the steering wheel. When you're at high speed, the steering wheel is very difficult to turn because of all the extra downforce. Then you would drop down into a heavy braking zone, you go down to a 30 mile-an-hour corner, you turn on the wheels, like a go-kart, it turns very easily. And the suspension is really rigid then because you don't have any downforce pushing on the suspension. And so at every corner, was that trust factor, like you're blind feeling your way through.”
Busch concentrated on doing his best in Rahal’s car but admits he was curious to see how he stacked up against the established Champ Car veterans around Sebring and was pleasantly surprised at the team’s response.
“And I wasn’t worried, at the end of the day, what my lap time was,” he said. “It was kind of funny. I was like: ‘Well, am I OK? Am I good?’ Am I going to make it work over here? And they said: ‘Yeah, you're about a second off the pace. You’d have made the grid at about 18th of 20 cars.’ And I was fine with that for one day in the car.”
There was also a cool encounter with one of his racing heroes at Sebring.
“What made that day even more special is I grew up in Vegas and there is a guy named Jimmy Vasser that lives there, and he was an Indy car guy that I looked up to and saw him race in the 90s,” said Busch, thinking he needed to explain who the 1996 CART champion and KV Racing IndyCar team co-owner happens to be.
“He was there that day at Sebring. And he had to come over and say: ‘Who the heck is in that car? We've heard that Michel Jourdain left at lunch time, who was in the car running here in the afternoon?’ So when you get a veteran like that checking in on you, it put the feather in the cap for that day.”
Busch would add racing an NHRA Pro Stock car and competing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona to his increasingly diverse resume, and with the addition of a V8 Supercar to that list in April and a next-generation Indy car this week in Indy, he is making a name for himself as Mr. Versatility.
Whether that translates into a future opportunity to compete in America’s greatest race with Andretti Autosport or another team is unknown, but of all the NASCAR drivers to possibly do it, Busch is the only one who seems up the challenge at the moment.
“If it can blend into my full-time job in Cup and I can do the Rolex or I can go down to Gainesville and make a Pro Stock event, or a chance to drive an Indy car at a test or even to race one, I'd love to jump on the opportunity,” he said. “The Cup schedule really restricts those opportunities but it's mainly, say you did it in life, you check it off the list and say, ‘Hey, I've raced a sports car, I raced an Indy car.’
“It's just stuff I've always wanted to do I keep checking them off the list.”
Marshall Pruett is a contributor for IMS.com and also writes for SPEED.com, Racer and Road & Track.