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Kurt Busch's need for speed

Hometown Las Vegas hero Kurt Busch grew up accompanying his father Tom to the racetrack. By age 16, he was racing himself, and later worked for the City of Las Vegas while he raced on the weekends. In 2000, NASCAR team owner Jack Roush invited Busch to audition for his team, and the rest was history. He has won 25 Sprint Cup victories and currently drives the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS. In 2015, Busch joined Las Vegas legends Andre Agassi, Greg Maddux and Jerry Tarkanian as an inductee in the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. 

What first interested you in racing?

It was the car in the garage. I always got to touch it and see it. As a kid, you’re always playing with your Hot Wheels cars—this one was real! [My dad] helped me understand how to work on the cars, he made me part of the team.

What were some of your other interests as a child?

I was a big baseball kid. I played in Spring Valley Little League many years—at least eight, it might have been 10. I had two groups of friends: I had my baseball buddies and I had my dirt-bike buddies. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I’d be hanging out out in the desert with four wheelers or with motorcycles. I also raced a lot of remote-control cars. So it was either baseball or something with an engine.

Did you have an inkling early on that racing was something you wanted to pursue?

My mom thought racing was too dangerous—and, bless her soul, she’s right. She always encouraged me to play baseball. The racing was more of a hobby. So when I started racing, I was 16 years old, which is considered a late start by most kids—they’re into go-karts around age 8, and racing bigger vehicles by age 12. For me, education was first. When I was trying to figure out which way I was going to go in life as an 18 year old, I came back to Las Vegas and won a big race and thought, “This is what I want to do.” 

So you worked for the City of Las Vegas and raced on the weekends?

In 1998, I worked for the Las Vegas Valley Water District and was also taking courses at UNLV, and racing as much as I could.

How long was it before you went into racing full time?

I got a call to race professionally for Jack Roush for the 2000 racing season. So from mid '97-'99, it was a good two and half years of trying to earn college credits, work at the water district as well as figure out how to get my hands on anybody’s steering wheel and race.

When did you finally get to drive that car in the garage?

When I was 16. That was the first time I got to drive. My dad had his race car, and sent me on a road trip to pick up what I thought was going to be his new car. When we got back, he said "This is your car." So I raced against my father when I first started out.

How did it feel? 

It was an amazing feeling of being in the car and feeling the horsepower, sliding in through the corners. I always watched videotape of my dad do it, and I always visualized myself doing it. It was an amazing step to have gone through working on the car, watching video feed, then to actually drive it.

Nowadays, how does it feel? 

It’s an amazing feeling to go 200 miles per hour! It’s an adrenaline rush, and as a racing junkie, you’ve got to have that speed. It’s a thrill to be able to drive down into a corner at 200 miles per hour and have the car stick underneath you, and then you have the chess game and the camaraderie with the other drivers. The gamemanship, how you have to beat the other guys, the strategy and just how you learn to race being within the experience—you can’t do that through video.

What do you think are the most important traits a person needs to have in NASCAR racing?

It’s a seat feel—when you’re sitting in the seat of the car and you know when you’ve got to turn the wheel or step on the gas and if you’ve gone too far to be able to correct it and not spin out. A lot of it, I think, is car control.

What do you do to prepare yourself for a race? 

A lot of it is repetition. There’s the cardiovascular, the physical side, of running a lot and treating your body like you’re a marathon runner. Then the mental preparation of studying notes, past trends at tracks, watching video, and most importantly, learning to read the competition and the traffic and knowing when to make passes and when not to make passes.

You’ve raced on such storied tracks—Daytona, Indianapolis and your home track of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. What do you feel when you set foot in these places?

You feel the identity of the track. The soul, the heartbeat of a track is what you have to learn to respect. Each track is different, has its own personality.

How is the feel at Las Vegas Motor Speedway different than at other tracks?

There’s a funny value to Vegas for me because it’s my hometown. I grew up there, I raced at the Bullring all through the ‘90s, then to have the big track pop up right out of the parking lot—I saw it from its infancy. There’s a lot of tourists that come to town for the race, a that great feel of true entertainment out at the Vegas track. It's definitely a lot of fun to come back and see friends and to be in that old, familiar stomping ground.

Is there a personal philosophy or creed you’ve followed throughout the years?

Always give it 100 percent, and always continue to learn. There’s never going to be a day that I know everything there is to know about racing.

Who do you admire?

To me, it’s guys who showed up every day and gave it their best. Guys like Cal Ripken, Jr., he was there to play through injuries, to worry about playing his position. There’s legendary drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who always seemed to find his way to the front. He knew he might not have the perfect car for the day, but he did the best with it what he could. And guys like Mario Andretti, who would go and drive anything at any time, showing his versatility.

You were recently inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. How does it feel to be recognized in such an esteemed group?

It’s a humbling experience. It makes you realize that there’s a community that’s always been there to support you. It’s a fun community to represent, because it is Las Vegas. The most important thing is that something like this reminds me of all the people who have helped me along the way, whether it’s financially, whether it’s with friendship, guidance, such as mentors and coaches. I thank all who have helped me achieve my goals.

How often are you in Las Vegas these days?

I’m based in North Carolina because of the race team, as well as the geographical location of all the NASCAR races. But there’s at least a dozen times a year I come to Las Vegas to see friends, as well as race, do business and the year-end celebration.

What are some of the things you like to do when you’re in Las Vegas?

It depends on the trip. If it’s race weekend, I stay on my routine, which is to stay at the track. But I like to go to Hoover Dam, one of Nevada's great tourist attractions, and Red Rock Canyon, a great place to go hiking and be outdoors—the scenery is beautiful. And I like to have a slice at my favorite pizza shop, Verrazano’s Pizza, on Rainbow [Boulevard] and Flamingo [Road].

What’s next for you?

It depends. I’d love to continue at the top levels of NASCAR and win another championship and win it for Stewart Haas. I’ve got great sponsors with Chevrolet and Monster Energy and relationships with those people—I want to take them to the next level, to the top of NASCAR. If there’s other driving opportunities, whether it’s rally cars, back to the NHRA, you name it, wherever, I’m ready to race.