In recent years the terminology surrounding what exactly NASCAR is has changed. In an effort to join the ranks of recognized traditional stink-and-ball competition, NASCAR began wanting to be referred to as a “sport.” After all, it fit all of the requirements of sport: hand-to-eye coordination, teamwork, operating under a great deal of stress in an environment of extremes; climate, proximity, auditory and sensory.
Plus you can die doing it. Hemingway is often quoted “there are only three true sports: mountain climbing, bullfighting and motor racing. All the rest are children’s games that grown-ups play.”
In recent years, however, as the sport has grown, a new term has emerged to describe our beloved pastime: “business.” As unsavory as that might sound, racing exists because of sponsors, and our favorite drivers and car manufacturers are indeed pitchmen and very loud, very fast billboards. With this business aspect comes some of the cliches that accompany corporate America as well. I was reminded of this a number of times during Kyle Busch‘s announcement that he will join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, as driver of the No. 18 machines fielded by Coach Gibbs and Co.
Kyle Busch used the terms, “opportunity,” “decision-making properties” and “great fit” in his first three responses when responding to questions at Tuesday’s press conference.
Opportunity – I have about 30 cover letters on file that have that term in them multiple times. Decision Making Properties? That might be the first time I’ve ever head anyone in racing other than Jack Roush or Frank Williams use that in a sentence. Great Fit: I remember the last time I heard that one. I think it was preceded by, “we just don’t think that you are a…” at my previous job.
As cringy as I get hearing some of those terms, racing is indeed as much of a business as it is a sport. With that in mind, there are some definite parallels to be drawn between Kyle’s choice of a new organization to drive for and the jobs that you and I grind it out at for 50-plus hours a week.
A cursory examination of Hendrick Motorsports and the personalities involved can revel pretty quick that Kyle Busch was not long to drive the five. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson for example, are tremendous racecar drivers with five championships between them, and more are sure to follow. As talented as both are behind the wheel, behind the camera, they are almost indistinguishable. Besides the three feet of combined eyebrow between the two, they both are Californians, both are married to models and both have their own dedicated race shop.
Casey Mears is another SoCal, and had he not gone American History X and shaved his head, he’d bear a striking resemblance to the other two. All three are friends and have been for quite some time.
Then there’s Busch.
Tall, lanky, pale, hailing from Sin City. Barely old enough to drink a beer or grow… whatever that thing is under his lower lip, and never one to mince words when near a microphone or a reporter’s notepad. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of Hendrick’s PG-rated, polished, pretty, corporate-friendly, non-offensive, preferred-face-of-NASCAR lineup.
Clearly not a great fit for Hendrick Motorsports.
Then there’s his reputation. Along with his older brother Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch has taken the moniker of “most reviled brothers in racing” from the Bodine clan of the 1990s. While that may not exactly light a sponsor’s fire, what does is both of their abilities, particularly Kyle’s. While his comments and actions are sometimes interpreted as arrogant, you would be hard pressed to find a driver who would say anything to the contrary of him being one of, if not the most talented young driver in the garage area.
Kyle often thinks (and speaks) outside the box whenever he has a chance to vent his frustrations, and that leads to the perception that he is not a team player.
Like any employer, race teams need people who are likable and play well with others, but they also need people who can perform. If you’re building widgets, would you rather hire the guy with a pocket protector and Buddy Holly glasses who scored at the top of his class at MIT, or the Abercrombie frat-boy from Michigan State wearing cargo pants and a dirty, white Spartans hat?
Since he first sat in a Cup car in 2004, Kyle Busch has racked up four wins, 24 top fives and 43 top 10s in 100 starts. He is a threat to win whenever he enters a Busch Series race, and has been known to absolutely stink up a Truck Series race. The numbers speak for themselves and are a telling tale of what’s to come.
These “metrics” clearly define his skillset as a “multi-tasker.”
Much like any responsible employer, teams typically have a mentoring program to help new hires and aspiring young executives to learn the ropes and handle the peripheral aspects of the job. At Hendrick, Gordon didn’t seem to do much as a mentor to Kyle Busch. Johnson, though a young driver himself, is mature beyond his years and never really seemed to help show Kyle how to handle things less emotionally and more professionally. Rick Hendrick’s legendary patience was tested with his young driver, but as the carnage of twisted Monte Carlos began to pile up, even that began to wear thin.
Kyle was apparently giving “110%” a little too often.
Again, it’s great if the boss gives you a shot, but if your co-workers aren’t there to help pick you up when you’re down, you’re going to get run over.
Enter JGR, home of Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, the driver who probably relates more to most traditional NASCAR fans than the Hendrick bunch. Both drivers seem like they are cut from a mold cast about two decades ago. Tony is never at a loss for words and never met a razor he really liked. Hamlin actually conducts interviews without sunglasses and it’s refreshing to hear a stock car driver with a southern accent.
JGR, having become accustomed to Stewart’s antics since his rookie season of 1999, is one of, if not the most stable operations in the garage area. There really never seems to be dissension in the ranks, save for Stewart’s self-inflicted admonishment during the 2002 season when Home Depot nearly left. The sponsor stuck around and most importantly, Coach Gibbs gave his driver another shot. Home Depot and Stewart are now practically synonymous with each other.
When an organization believes in someone and gives them a chance to prove and redeem themselves, great things can happen. When a driver is left to flounder and figure it out on his own, you have what the last few months at HMS devolved into for Kyle Busch.
At JGR, they have begun to “shift the paradigm,” are “employee-driven,” invest in “human capital” and thrive on “accountability.”
Many have questioned whether Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch can all co-exist together. After all, there is a fine line between being passionate and being a pain in the ass. While Stewart and Busch have had words for one another in the past, their barbs and responses actually play well of one another. If you think about it, Kyle Busch kind of looks and sounds a lot like the illegitimate child of Stewart and Kevin Harvick.
I believe they will be fine.
With his move to JGR, Kyle has a fresh start in greener pastures, and not just because his new car is that same hue. He has teammates he can relate to, a car owner who is willing to fly in from training camp to help diffuse any situations that may arise between his employees, and will be on equal footing with the Gibbs philosophy of three teams operating as one.
What it all adds up to is a tremendous “opportunity,” a “win-win” situation for everyone involved and a “great fit” for Kyle Busch. A “motivated self-starter” who is “on the fast track,” he will find himself “empowered” as a “team player,” because at Joe Gibbs Racing there is “no ‘I’ in ‘Team.'” And as we all know, “Together Everyone Achieves More.”
I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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