Imagine you’ve just wrapped up one of the most intensive schedules in all of sport, 48 events in 39 weeks across three series, Christmas is on the horizon and you’re ready to enjoy a well-earned rest.
Now imagine you’re Kyle Busch, and just one week after finishing that gruelling NASCAR season you get strapped into a VT21X supercar to compete in Nitro Rallycross’ third round in Phoenix, Arizona.
For Busch, someone whose life revolves around racing, it was another chance to do what he loves but without the pressure of a year-long championship battle and without the expectation that comes with it.
“It was quite different to what I’m accustomed to normally but it was fun so I enjoyed it,” Busch told DirtFish of his rallycross debut last weekend at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
“The NASCAR stuff, as pressure-packed as that all is, it gets to you and just kind of wears on you after a while so it’s nice when you have some extracurricular racing that you can do that’ll get you off that normal track.”
Of course, a man with three titles and an astonishing 222 wins across NASCAR’s three touring divisions isn’t just going to take part in a race to make up the numbers, even if it was “fun”. Just as well then that he was being run out of the same Subaru team that included serial title winner and fellow NASCAR alumnus Scott Speed, someone who knew exactly how to handle the transition Busch himself was dealing with.
“I think that was probably the biggest thing that helped my learning curve and have my experience go much easier than anticipated,” Busch said. “I mean, it wasn’t easy but [it was] much better than it could’ve gone.
“Scott and I were Toyota team-mates back in the NASCAR days and we hung out quite a bit and we developed a relationship. So we had that relationship, that friendship from back then that we’ve just kind of rekindled there for this weekend.”
Only back together for the weekend, the pair wasted no time in getting down to business, with Speed imparting his years of rallycross experience on Busch to get him on the same page.
“The way that he remembers driving the NASCAR cars to me and how everything that I’ve done, you know, he was able to help me through some of the [things] like looking at the data and watching the videos.
“He knew my driving style from looking at my data back in the NASCAR stuff where I was very precise and [making] very small movements and being ginger to the car, where he was like ‘throw all that out’ and ‘you’ve gotta man-handle this thing, you’ve gotta wheel it, don’t be scared to turn that wheel, don’t be scared to hit that gas’. So definitely lots of things, he sped up my learning curve than not having him.”
While the use of data differed from NASCAR – although both not a million miles apart as some might expect – there were elements of the driving aspect that drew parallels.
“I would say probably the biggest thing was just turn one – for as slippery as turn one got, it really reminded me of Martinsville where you really have to slow down and you have to get it to the bottom and you have to wrap that kerb and try not to slip out and try to power down out of the turn really square, really straight and get over that first jump.
“That was probably more NASCAR driving than anything,” Busch added. “Some guys would try to go through there crooked and sideways and it was not faster than just trying to go through there straight and allowing the front tires to pull you around the corner. So that was probably the most similar part of it.”
NASCAR’s dirt race at Bristol earlier this year also proved to be something of a preparatory exercise too.
“We raced on dirt earlier this year in the NASCAR cars at Bristol and having some of that experience of just that bigger car, that heavier car on dirt gave me a little bit of a sense of how slippery it can be versus when I’ve raced dirt late models before,” he said.
“Those things have a lot of downforce, a lot of grip and they’re fast, they’ve got a really big tire so running the NASCAR car on dirt kind of showed you how little grip a car can have and for the tires that the rallycross cars run, it kind of felt very similar.”
But for all the similarities one might try to draw between stock cars and rallycross, there’s no getting around some of the biggest differences between the two disciplines.
“The jump process was challenging, I don’t know if I ever really nailed it,” Busch admitted when the ‘cars that fly’ aspect of Nitro Rallycross came up.
“To me, one of the [new] things was you’re trying to fly over a jump and you’re trying to hit that perfectly with the right amount of speed to land on the down side of the jump, and then turn it into a turn.
“Turn three was very challenging – you jump the gap jump and then you lead up to the next jump and it’s kind of a step-up with a knuckle at the end of it and you want to hit that at the perfect speed. But when you’re in traffic racing around guys you don’t wanna just jump it and launch and land on top of them or nail ‘em in the back end.
“So figuring out all of that and racing with that was probably the biggest challenge and I’m not sure I ever got it right while being in traffic but when I was by myself I felt I was hitting it pretty good, especially towards the end.
“I was getting way better and just how you have to load the car up before you take off was something that I’ve not been accustomed to.”
Standing starts were another new element of racecraft Busch had to contend with. A complex procedure in a rallycross car. By Sunday’s showpiece final he had the start sequence nailed, but it took some time to adjust there too.
“There’s a lot of technology involved in those starts for sure,” he explained. “The engine guys and all the programming of the data and the telemetry of what the engine’s doing, what the clutch is doing, what gear you start in and how it applies the power for you coming out of the start and start mode is all on those guys, you just have to execute it.
“I felt like those were definitely getting better towards the end. The last one I felt like I hit it as good as I could’ve hit it. The second-to-last one I felt like I hit it pretty good but I still got ran over.
“But anyways, I felt I wasn’t really losing a whole lot of time to my Subaru team-mates so at least that helped.”
Interestingly enough, Busch and Speed were drawn together for the opening round of the battle bracket on Saturday, providing the perfect early benchmark for the rallycross newbie.
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) November 14, 2021
“When I came out of the one-on-one battle with Speed and I only finished a second off of him, I felt like that was pretty respectable,” Busch said. “I enjoyed that, that was pretty cool.
“The outside section of the race track, turns seven, eight, nine, and 10 just killed me,” he admitted. “That was where I lost all my time. I could be equal to everybody all in the stadium section stuff, but that outside, how you have to throttle and carry the speed while turning a four-wheel-drive car, I’ve never done that so I was really trying to figure that out and learn that and that was probably my biggest struggle all weekend long.
“But to finish a second behind Scott there, and then I looked at the timing and scoring of the finale just for an instant before I left and I think I saw that segment of race track compared to [Travis] Pastrana on the final lap, I was only three tenths off, so I was pretty excited about that.
“Not being terribly [far] off winner’s pace was pretty close and respectable for a first weekend.”
After the one-on-one battle, Busch was thrown right into heat races on day two.
NASCAR drivers are of course no strangers to hard-fought pack racing, but with Nitro RX you get as much intensity in five minutes as you usually would in four hours on an oval. But while taking care of equipment is one thing, Phoenix also threw up another challenge in the form of dust, not something you usually have to contend with in NASCAR.
“There’s definitely attrition,” Busch said. “You’re trying to take care of your car, trying to take care of your equipment and you can throw it in on somebody and you can hit ‘em and bang ‘em and bounce off tires and whatever but these cars aren’t built for a whole lot of contact.
“The other thing that I felt was the worst case scenario for me was the heat race when we all fired off and I was mired in traffic there, I didn’t really have very much clean race track in front of me. You could not see anything.
“We came out of turn one and I knew the gap jump was there but I could not see it so I just gassed it up and flew over that thing and you’re kind of figuring out where the next one is and you’re trying to roll out of the gas so you don’t hit it full speed but you don’t have any idea how fast you’re going, and then as soon as you start heading up the face of the jump, you lift out of the gas in order to kind of let it fly and couldn’t see anything.
“That was probably the worst thing for me and why I didn’t perform as well as I’d hope to in the heat race was just I could not see, I was blinded.”
When visibility was a bit better in the final, Busch was able to put everything he’d learned up to that point into practice. The end result was fourth, which came after a perfectly managed race, avoiding chaos while also engaging in a brilliant battle with series regular Cabot Bigham, with Busch saying that he’d “definitely progressed to that point for sure,” when it came to getting his elbows out in the rough and tumble of rallycross.
So now he’s had a taste, is Busch keen to do more rallycross?
“I wouldn’t mind it, it would certainly be nice,” was his answer.
“I just have too many other things going right now scheduling-wise so I’m tapped out.
“But if they get their schedule out earlier next year and we look at the NASCAR schedule and see what I can do, if I can run two, three, four events, whatever it might be, that might be kinda fun to do and just gotta get it all done up ahead of time.
“I would enjoy coming back if they’d invite me, so hopefully that’s something to look forward to.
“It all depends on what they can do with their schedule, right? If they can work their schedule to be all during our off-season, you could run a full rallycross deal but I don’t know if that’s all on the cards, we’ll see.”