Kurt Busch: From Victory Lane to Capitol Hill
April 03, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
For one morning, the U.S. Capitol building became an extension of Martinsville Speedway's Victory Lane.
Kurt Busch visited the legislative seat Wednesday morning to promote military causes with his girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, president of the Armed Forces Foundation. A scheduled conference with one congressman, Steve Womack of Arkansas, turned into a spontaneous round of meetings with several other lawmakers -- many of whom congratulated Busch on becoming the most recent winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"Yesterday was a perfect day of, 'Hey Kurt, great job on the race win, thanks for what you do for our troops,'" Busch told NASCAR.com by telephone. "It was, 'I'm from Kentucky,' or 'I'm from Maine,' or 'I'm from Washington state.' The Washington state guy was hilarious. He was like a bookie. 'You've never done good at Martinsville before, and I didn't have you on my fantasy league team, and then you go and win.' It was hilarious, the conversations that opened up."
Indeed, Busch's victory Sunday was his first win at the Virginia short track in 12 years, and snapped an 83-race winless skid for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. The 2004 series champion visited the nation's capital to help Driscoll push for an 18-month extension of counseling services for military members who are being discharged. Womack is among the lawmakers behind the legislation, which has not yet been put to the floor for a vote.
"The biggest problem that we have with our service members is, they start to see somebody as a counselor before they exit the military, and they start to build a good rapport with them. And then when they're discharged from the military, they're not allowed to see that person anymore," Driscoll said. "… What we've been trying to push is an 18-month extension of mental health benefits, so they can continue to see the same person up to 18 months after they are out. I think that would really help reduce the suicide rates, because once you've gone to a counselor you connect with, it's a terrible thing to say, 'No, you can’t see this person anymore. You've got to start all over.'"
Toward that end, it certainly helped to have Busch in tow. The NASCAR driver said he and Driscoll were meeting with Womack when a buzzer sounded, and the congressman said he had to go take part in a vote. He then asked Busch and Driscoll if they wanted to join him in the cloakroom, where congressmen gather informally during votes.
"I'm like, 'Abso-frigging-loutely,'" Busch said, whose visit took place before the shootings in Fort Hood, Texas, Wednesday evening. "It was an amazing chance to go into this cloakroom and see all these high-powered individuals in an impromptu setting. Once we get into the room, he's introducing me to different people, and I see Patricia, and it's like she's put on ice skates. She swiftly moved to everybody in the room. It was really an amazing morning."
(L-R) Rep. Steve Womack (Arkansas), Armed Forces Foundation President Patricia Driscoll and 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch, and Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner in the Speaker's office on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: Patricia Driscoll)
Suddenly, Busch was shaking hands with one congressman after another. Photos posted to Twitter show the Martinsville winner with Mark Sanford of South Carolina, John Duncan of Tennessee, Kevin Yoder of Kansas, and Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio, among others. It was an intimate setting, given that congressional cloakrooms -- former coatrooms adjacent to the House and Senate chambers, and now used as informal gathering areas -- are typically off-limits to everyone except the legislators themselves.
"You don’t even see their staff. There's nobody in there," said Driscoll, who is often at the Capitol promoting causes related to her foundation. "… It's their private little drivers' meeting room, as Kurt called it." In this case, an exception was made for a NASCAR champion.
"It's funny to see how many of these guys are NASCAR fans," she added. "I never knew it. In dating Kurt, I'd bring him around, and all of the sudden we weren’t talking the border, or national security, or defense issues or anything like that -- we were talking NASCAR. … To watch what happened yesterday in the cloakroom, I just died laughing with how many of them were like, 'Will you take our picture?' I felt like his PR girl."
Boehner is no stranger to NASCAR, having met Brad Keselowski last year during the 2012 champion's visit to the White House, and even chatting with NASCAR President Mike Helton in Washington last week. Busch said he and Boehner have "bumped into each other a couple of times" during their travels, and Wednesday they met in the Speaker's office for a 10 minutes. "It was really an interesting chat," Busch added."
Soon enough Busch's focus will turn back to racing, and this weekend's Sprint Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway, where he won with Penske in 2009. While SHR has won two of the season's first six races -- Kevin Harvick and Phoenix and Busch at Martinsville – those wins were on smaller venues, and 1.5-mile Texas presents a bigger, faster challenge.
"It's great to have a win early in the year with the new points system, a new team," he said. "… We've won a third of the races so far, we've won at short tracks, and we realize the mile-and-a-halfs, the bigger tracks, are where we need to pick up the slack. But it's great we've already proven we can win. So confidence is up high, and at the same time, though, the motivation is there, everybody knows we have so much more work that we can do. But we can enjoy it at a nice pace."
And Busch doesn't think last weekend's feud with Keselowski will get in the way. The two drivers made contact during an early pit stop, which led to some harsh words -- not to mention a little door-to-door bumping -- directed from the current Penske driver toward his former teammate. Keselowski tweeted earlier in the week that he didn't blame Busch for the incident, and that both drivers would move on.
"I'm not worried about it," Busch said. "He seemed to be retracting most of his statements and his thoughts. Just a poor judgment call on his part. The way that a lot of short track racing goes, you have these freak accidents, pit-road congestion, and it takes away your shot at doing good for the rest of the day. That’s what happened to him, so he was pretty upset."
Wednesday's visit to Washington, though, dealt with much larger issues. Busch said he'd been to Capitol Hill before, receiving "the nickel tour" from a California lawmaker he's friendly with. With the help of Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy -- also a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve Medical Service who works with military members suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder -- Busch has learned how his name recognition can lend weight to a cause.
"He knows how an athlete or somebody of notoriety can move things with their power, and more just with their friendship," Busch said. "I see that the more that I'm around."
(L-R) The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch, Armed Forces Foundation President Patricia Driscoll and Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner in the Speaker's office on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: Patricia Driscoll)