GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — When Kurt Busch’s wife surprised him with a spot in a drag racing school, the NASCAR driver had no idea what he was getting into.
He still doesn’t really know, either.
Busch spent two days waiting to make his NHRA debut at the Gatornationals, but heavy rain and flooding forced the sanctioning body to postpone his Sportsman class until Sunday at the earliest.
It was a small setback for Busch, who has grown accustomed to delays in NASCAR. There was the pothole debacle at Daytona International Speedway last month and then he had to drive several extra laps last week to secure a victory in Atlanta.
He has waited considerably longer for this. Two years to be exact.
“Little did I know how serious that we were going to jump into it,” Busch said.
Busch’s venture began at the U.S. Nationals in 2008, when he watched the event with legendary drag racer Don Prudomme. About the same time, a drag strip was being built near his home in Charlotte.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to have a car,'” Busch said. “They’re going to have ‘NASCAR Night’ and there’s going to be nobody out there that’s going to beat me on the NASCAR side. That’s really the main objective.”
Busch certainly could have the car to beat.
He bought a 1970 Dodge Challenger off eBay for $15,000 and started getting into race shape. The street-legal car puts out nearly 1,200 horsepower now.
Busch got it on a track for the first time Monday, when he took it to Rockingham Dragway and made about a dozen passes in preparation for Gainesville — the only NHRA event that coincided with an off weekend for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
“We’re here and we’re enjoying ourselves,” Busch said. “It’s really neat, the camaraderie with the guys, hanging out in the pit area and just being one of the group. It’s just fun hanging out and having an off week and spending time with my guys and just enjoying the weekend.”
But Busch is still waiting to get behind the wheel.
He spent much of Friday walking through the garage area, shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He also mingled with other drivers and even stood near the starting line with his fingers in his ears for several qualifying runs in other series.
His cell phone kept ringing, too. The caller? NASCAR team owner Roger Penske.
“He keeps checking in, saying, ‘How you doing? How are things going? Are you being safe?'” Busch said.
Busch assured his boss there’s nothing to worry, even though he keeps getting offers to jump in other rides this weekend.
“It’s like an Indy driver jumping in a Sprint car or (a NASCAR driver) doing a dirt (racing) like Tony Stewart does all the time,” Busch said. “The car owners know that if you’ve got a driver that wants to go out there and challenge himself in a new world or in something different, he knows he has the best guy behind the wheel of his Cup car.”
Busch has some experience, too.
After he got the “bug” to race, his wife sent him to the famed Roy Hill drag racing school.
“When I followed him and learned more about the drag-racing world, I learned that there was quite a bit that I didn’t understand,” Busch said. “Roy has taken me under his wing, and when you do something wrong, he’s the first one to tell you straight to your face. It reminds me a little of how my dad taught me how to drive in the oval ranks.”
He teamed up with longtime friend Jesse Walker and started building a competitive car. Although Busch has struggled with his reaction times in practice, he’s eager to see what it will do — assuming he gets it on the strip this weekend.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to get behind the wheel,” Busch said.
But don’t expect this to be a full-time venture anytime soon.
“I still hope I’ve got 10 or 15 years left on the Cup circuit,” he said. “But the fun meter’s been pegged and I’m having a great time doing it. Who knows? The opportunity could be out there to do something in NHRA racing later on.”