News & Media

Caraviello: Busch's biggest crime was lack of awareness

May 27, 2011, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Busch's biggest crime wasn't speeding at 128 mph, but lack of awareness

Banking built all the skyscrapers downtown, textiles employed all the people on the outskirts, but it was speed that truly made Charlotte famous. The first race in what is now NASCAR's premier series was held on old Charlotte Speedway in 1949, the big track in Concord went up a little more than a decade later, and the little mill towns across the Piedmont opened their arms to organizations that ply their trade in aerodynamics and horsepower. These days, the circuit's color bar logo even graces a tower that houses NASCAR offices and the sport's hall of fame.

Racing runs through Charlotte as wide and deep as the Catawba River, meandering from the race shops and drivers' homes near Lake Norman, to the speedway complex where the Coca-Cola 600 will be contested on Sunday, to the racing-themed street festival that will close off the center of downtown for much of this weekend. And yet, even in a place where racing and society enjoy such a symbiotic relationship, excessive speed can make people uneasy. Particularly when it's on the highway, and athletes are directly or indirectly involved. Because few cities in America know better than Charlotte that speed can kill.

"Fortunately, there was no one hurt, but that doesn't make any kind of excuse for what happened, and for my lack of judgment, and for what I did."


Kyle Busch's citation on Tuesday for going 128 mph in a 45 zone raised the ire of this town, even though the offense in and of itself is only a misdemeanor. On local radio and in the local newspaper, there's been plenty of debate over whether Busch should have gone to jail, should be punished by NASCAR, should even be suspended for a race. No question some of that comes from people who have a negative impression of Busch, a polarizing figure who can agitate with both his personality and his driving style, and has a legion of haters ready to pile on at the slightest provocation. But some of it surely also stems from bad memories of speed-related accidents that have happened here in the past.

You don't have to be a lifelong Charlottean to remember Bobby Phills. In January of 2000 -- during the NASCAR preseason media tour -- the popular member of the then-Charlotte Hornets was apparently racing a teammate at more than 75 mph when his Porsche spun into oncoming traffic. He was pronounced dead at the scene. More recently, the two sons of drag racer Doug Herbert were killed in 2008 when the Mazda they were traveling in reportedly attempted to overtake another vehicle, went out of control, and collided with a Hummer near the town of Cornelius. And there's the infamous case of Rob Moroso, a rising NASCAR star who killed himself and another driver outside Mooresville in 1990. He was drunk, and doing 75 on a curve with a 35 mph limit.

No wonder some here are outraged at the idea of Busch traveling 128 mph in a loaned yellow Lexus LFA -- a $375,000 vehicle that can accelerate from idle to redline in just over half a second, and has a top speed of 202 -- on a two-lane country road near Troutman. Busch's biggest offense isn't necessarily the speeding itself, which could ultimately cost him a few thousand dollars in fines and the loss of his North Carolina driver's license for a few weeks. No, the worst thing is an utter lack of awareness of the ramifications of going that fast, on a road not designed to handle that kind of speed, in an area that well knows the potentially tragic consequences of standing on the throttle too hard, all from a professional driver who should know better.

"Fortunately, there was no one hurt, but that doesn't make any kind of excuse for what happened, and for my lack of judgment, and for what I did," Busch said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "... There are a lot of processes to be thought about here, there are some learning experiences to be taken from this. The best I can do is try to move along past it through this weekend and take my course of action ... in what may lie ahead."

What lies ahead is a court date in Iredell County that will determine Busch's punishment. Of course, some people want more. They want him to be parked, to be fined, to be publicly reprimanded. Those kinds of things are unlikely to happen. A NASCAR license and a street license are two distinctly different things, and you don't need one to have the other. The sanctioning body's stance in such matters is usually to allow them to be adjudicated through the legal system, which will apparently be the case here. If NASCAR didn't park Michael Annett for driving under the influence in early February, it's not going to park Busch for speeding, no matter how egregious the offense.

"And in being professional race car drivers, we don't make stupid mistakes like that on the road. That's how I look at it."


"This is a matter that Kyle will have to handle with the authorities in Iredell County," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "Based on what we know right now, this would not impact his status as a NASCAR driver. We'll have no further comment at this time."

Added Ryan Newman: "If you don't have to have a driver's license to compete in the series, then what happens on the street has no effect on what happens on the race track, in my opinion," he said. "That's what you hold a drivers license for."

That doesn't mean Busch won't face another kind of penalty other than whatever Iredell County hands down. When former Joe Gibbs Racing driver Tony Stewart struck a photographer at Indianapolis in 2002, the largest fine levied against the driver wasn't by NASCAR, but by Stewart's own car sponsor. Joe Gibbs, Busch's car owner, didn't rule out the possibility of similar internal sanctions, but declined to provide details. "All those things as far as disciplinary action will be part of us going through the process to try and do the right thing," he said.

Gibbs did say one possibility could be Busch working with a program that tries to prevent speeding and reckless driving among teenagers. There would be no better place than BRAKES -- short for Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe -- a nonprofit organization started by Gibbs' neighbor Doug Herbert after the accident that claimed the life of the drag racer's two sons, 17-year-old Jon and 12-year-old James. In 2010 the Concord-based organization held 16 driving schools and provided training to more than 1,200 teenaged drivers.

Surely Busch isn't the first person, NASCAR driver or otherwise, to put the hammer down in a high-powered sports car on the street. Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted he's gone faster than he should have a time or two. "I've been guilty of the same thing myself, just been lucky enough not to get caught," he said. Jimmie Johnson added that anyone who slides behind the wheel of a high-performance vehicle like the Lexus LFA has one thing in mind. "I'm not trying to justify what he did," the five-time series champion said, "but we can all look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we've wondered what it felt like to stand on the gas pedal."

Of course, Johnson also said he drove to the track Thursday in a 1949 Chevy pick-up, and doubts he cracked 65 mph along the way. It's all about awareness, a recognition of not just speed limits but also what excessive speed and reckless driving can do. Streaking along a rural road at 128 mph, in a city that's seen athletes and highway tragedies linked too many times, comes across as tone deaf, particularly given Busch's choice of profession. "We're supposed to be professional race car drivers," Newman said. "And in being professional race car drivers, we don't make stupid mistakes like that on the road. That's how I look at it."

Thursday, that message seemed to be sinking in. When he was pulled over, Busch told the deputy that the car was "just a toy." Now? "It was a high-performance vehicle that shouldn't be taken lightly and should be driven with caution," he said. "Obviously, I didn't have caution. I had a lack of judgment, and there's probably a reason why on TV commercials and such they always show at the bottom, professional driver, closed course. Mine was not that."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.