Kyle Busch Answers Your NASCAR Questions
The Sunday after we lined up NASCAR driver Kyle Busch to do this Q&A, he won his first career road-course race, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon. We wondered if Freakonomics luck had something to do with it.
Then last week, as your questions were coming in, he snagged the No. 1 spot in Sports Illustrated‘s NASCAR Power Rankings.
The only bad luck for Busch, and the rest of NASCAR, may lie in falling NASCAR attendance rates due in part to high gas prices. Corporate sponsorships are also said to be significantly harder to come by, especially for lower-tier teams and drivers.
Busch races today in the Nationwide Series Winn-Dixie 250 at Daytona. The local forecast predicts bad weather, but he’s probably not concerned: He won the same race last year in the rain. And then tomorrow, he’s in the Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400. Look for him in the No. 18 car, an M&M’s Toyota.
Thanks to Busch for his answers and all of you for your smart questions.
Q: Considering the buzz around 18-year-old Joey Logano and your own youth, what do you think of NASCAR’s current minimum age limits for drivers? Are they reasonable?
A: Yeah, I think the age limit is pretty reasonable. If you think about it, it’s pretty consistent with how old you have to be to get your license and drive a regular car.
There are guys out there that have the talent at an earlier age, and Joey’s definitely one of those guys. I like to think that I was one of those guys when I started in the Craftsman Truck Series at 16 years old. But there’s so much more about this sport than just driving the race car, and I think it’s probably a good idea to have the age limit where it is to give guys a chance to grow up a little bit before they have to deal with all that.
Q: If you were the boss of NASCAR, what are the top changes you would make that would take things to a new level?
A: Wow, that’s definitely a job I wouldn’t be qualified for. Managing all the different personalities and agendas in that garage can’t be easy. It’s tough to say what would take this sport to a whole new level because things are going pretty good right now, but maybe I’d move start times up to noon on most Sundays or race Saturday nights more often.
I’d do more things for the race fans if I could — maybe give free Dale Jr. bobbleheads to the first 100,000 fans each weekend. I don’t know.
It’s probably not a good idea but instead of having qualifying for the guys that are outside the top 35, maybe have a B-Main or a qualifying race for those guys and take the top 8 and line them up in the back of the field for Sunday. It would make Friday more interesting, I promise you that.
Q: When you are in your “civilian” car, has anyone ever pulled up beside you and wanted to race?
A: Actually, no. I don’t know why, but that’s never happened to me before.
Q: What is the most pervasive form of “cheating” that takes place in the garage? What has NASCAR done that has been most effective at reducing cheating?
A: That’s a tough one. I don’t know if there is just one thing. I think usually what you see is guys trying some different ways to get the nose of the car down and the back end up, trying to create as much down force as possible. Or they’re trying different things to create more grip through the corners.
But there is a lot of gray area in the rules too, so you can’t always call it cheating. NASCAR does a real good job of policing the garage and trying to keep all the teams on a level playing field. The inspection process that all the teams have to go through each week is probably the biggest thing that NASCAR does to make sure everyone’s playing by the rules.
Q: How do you think it would affect the drivers if you ran the Daytona 500 in the opposite direction, making all right turns? Do you think you’d be able to adjust pretty quickly, or are there muscle memory issues that could potentially lead to more crashes?
A: Wow, that’d be pretty crazy to watch, wouldn’t it? It would take way more effort and way more planning to make something like that happen than just sending the drivers out and telling them to go the other way.
The cars would definitely have to be changed from the way they’re set up, especially with the way the old cars used to be. Your shock package, tire pressures, wedge, trackbar — everything would have to change because of the way the car would travel on the track.
I think the drivers could adjust but it would definitely feel weird for a while. It probably wouldn’t be the prettiest Daytona 500 you’ve ever seen.
Q: Do drivers get frustrated when they work hard to gain track position only to lose it at the next caution, and to have cars they’ve lapped get back on the lead lap through the “lucky dog” rule?
A: You know, it usually all evens out. It’s frustrating sometimes sure, but sometimes you need a caution to catch back up and it really helps you get back on track. So it usually evens out over the course of a race or a season.
The “lucky dog” rule isn’t perfect but overall it’s a good thing because it helps the wreckers and the medics get to those guys that might have brought out the caution a little quicker. It’s one of those deals: when you’re the leader you hate to see the caution come out, and when you’re the first guy one lap down you love it.
Q: How would you feel about racing an electric car? Would you have the same motivation?
A: I don’t know if “motivation” is the right word. I like to race just about anything. If you’ve got an electric car, bring it on. I’ll race it.
It would just be a different experience. It would be something new you’d have to learn. The power would be way different so your driving style would have to change.
Q: How are NASCAR drivers compensated? Of the money collected for a race, how much goes to the team and how much goes to the driver?
A: We’ve all got something different. It depends on what your contract is, but it’s basically a mix of a base salary plus race winnings and performance bonuses.
The money you see next to a driver’s name after a race isn’t what he gets. That number is usually split up between the driver and the team owner and sometimes the team. Just like other athletes, drivers can have performance-based bonuses, like a bonus for a win or a top five or top 10 or whatever. And then some drivers get a percentage of merchandise sales or licensing or stuff like that. Like I said, it just varies from driver to driver.
Q: Is having a good drafting technique a more or less important skill to have than being able to tell how your car is riding?
A: It would be less important. Drafting really comes into play the most at only two tracks. But you always have to be aware of your car’s handling everywhere you go. Each driver has their own interpretation of what feels loose and what feels tight to them — and you have to be able to communicate that to your crew chief and let them know what you’re feeling with the car so they can make changes.
The better drivers are the ones who have a better understanding of what’s going on with their car and how to make it better.
Q: NASCAR drivers are consistently praised for how they deal with the media. How much training and/or direction regarding media relations do you get from NASCAR officials or team owners?
A: Ha. I think I’m the wrong guy to be asking that question of. Some people might think I need more training.
Honestly though, I have a great group of people around me that keep me informed and help me with some things. But I try to keep myself up to speed on everything that’s going on around the sport and in the garage as much as I can.
I don’t think anyone is born with the skill of knowing how to talk with a hundred cameras and microphones in their face. You have to learn some of that as you go. So I’ve had some media training earlier in my career.
Q: What is the single hardest thing about racing NASCAR?
A: Probably the travel and time commitment. If it were just climbing in the car and racing 500 miles on Sunday it’d be a lot easier. It’s the traveling back and forth and doing all the other stuff that comes along with it away from the track that can get kind of tiring. But it’s nothing we can’t handle.
Q: Given that track testing limits and basic economies of scale give multi-car teams a huge advantage over their single-car counterparts, would you be in favor of limiting the number of teams one owner could control?
A: Well, there’s actually a limit going into effect next year. Team owners will be limited to four teams in 2009.
Everybody wants to see costs in this sport mandated somehow — and you have to do that to keep the sponsors attracted. You’ve got to get them here and keep them here. So you have to find a way to keep costs down and keep the competition strong.
It’s hard to tell some of these team owners who have been doing so well that they have to put a cap on their growth. It’s not a perfect solution, but I don’t think we’ll ever find one.
Q: I’m interested in how cooperation between drivers develops over a season (or even during a race). Are there unspoken deals between drivers, or do drivers and teams discuss these things before or during races.
For example, I’ve seen Tony Stewart and Dale Jr. as drafting partners in a lot of restrictor plate races, even though they’re not on the same team.
A: Those drafting deals can get kind of crazy sometimes. You definitely want to work with your teammates as much as you can, but it doesn’t always make sense. You’re not always around each other on the race track or sometimes your cars don’t always match up well together. So you’ve got to work with other guys sometimes.
Those deals might get worked out in practice the day before or you might find a different drafting partner at the end of a race than you started out with. Tony and Dale have been good friends for several years I guess and they both have been pretty stout at the restrictor plate races so that’s why they usually link up together.
Q: To what extend do owners hire a driver based on marketability as opposed to strictly driving ability?
A: It happens sometimes. You’ve got guys out there that are good spokespeople for their sponsors or whatever. They do a good job of selling merchandise and all that.
And then you’ve got guys that are just good wheel men. Both of those factors have to play a role when you hire a race car driver in this day and age. But I think the driving ability should still take precedence.
Q:I’ve heard that you have a standing invitation to test with the Toyota Formula 1 team but you don’t think they’re at the competitive level you’d like. What do they need to do to get there, or is the Formula 1 system inherently broken and biased towards the top teams?
A: That’s a good question. First, let me take a moment to clarify what I said before. Toyota is competitive in anything they do. They have been working real hard developing the new TF108 chassis and that hard work has really started to pay off.
The boys have been pretty competitive since the Canadian Grand Prix with both scoring points in Canada and my new friend Jarno Trulli scoring our first podium of the season in France a couple weeks ago. I have plans to participate in an exhibition run at Mt. Fiji with the Toyota team and look forward to getting in the car and experiencing what it feels like in late November.
In any series you are going to have separation from the front of the grid to the back of the grid. That is no different than what we see here in the States. There isn’t anything that I specifically need to go F1 racing, but it sure would help if I had a few NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship rings in my possession. If an offer ever came for a proper test or an offer came to make the switch, I don’t believe that I could make that jump unless I had accomplished everything that I would like to accomplish here.
Q: I must say, fantastic work out there. I was one of the few fans at Richmond not giving you the bird.
If you had to decide between paying top dollar for the best driver and settling on a mediocre car week after week, or spending enough to have the best car but a mediocre driver, which would you choose?
A: Definitely got to go with the driver for sure. A good driver can make up for bad equipment way more than a good car could make up for a bad driver.
Q: NASCAR does have a sort of “good guy/bad guy” story line going all the time. How do the drivers feel about the fact that all their time, money, and training can be reduced to so simplistic a commentary on their profession?
A: I don’t know how the other guys feel about it. For me, I guess I don’t really think about it that much. I just try to go out there and be who I am and compete and bring home as many trophies as I can. That’s what being a race car driver is all about and that’s why I do what I do.
Whatever category that puts me in after that, I don’t really worry about it.