On the morning of my 27th birthday this past Tuesday, I sat on my balcony under overcast skies and came to a realization (as you often do on your birthday).
Turning 27 means I have been watching racing for nearly 20 years and involved either driving or working with race cars for 15 years. And it has become clear to me — no matter if you’re a seasoned racer or a virgin fan – that there is an unanswerable question in racing.
What makes one driver better than others?
There are many who will offer their opinions, such as “They have a feel for it,” or “They are able to do X and no one else can X as well as them.” Or maybe even using the parochial “God-given” feel, expertise, and talent as the great divide between excellence and average.
The fact is, there is no one on the planet who has a definitive answer as to what makes one driver better than another. There are simply too many variables from one situation to another.
But every now and then, we are given a rare glimpse of what separates a great driver from the rest. It may be an incredible pass, a rear tire-smoking save, or a string of laps so fast they defy logic. Moments that become multimillion-viewed YouTube videos and the go-to folklore in bars around the world to justify a legend.
Think of the start to the 1993 Donington Park Grand Prix, when Ayrton Senna drove from sixth to first in one incredible rain-soaked lap. Or stateside, the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway where Dale Earnhardt went from 18th to first in five laps for his last victory.
Even a single lap time can define a career. Such as the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix qualifying session when Ayrton Senna outqualified his teammate by an incomprehensible 1.427 seconds to win the pole. Senna would later remark, “That was the maximum for me; no room for anything more. I never really reached that feeling again.”
Those are examples of entirely different forms of racing, but two drivers for whom “legend” at this point doesn’t suffice. They’ve become the stuff of gods because of the number of times they had great unimaginable moments behind the wheel of a race car.
Which brings me to the modern day. In an era of ever increasing technology, parity and rules designed to allow closer competition, it increasingly is harder to see these great moments. But trust me, they still exist.
With the “Multi-Vantage Point” coverage we did on NBCSN last weekend at Watkins Glen International, I was stationed at the inner loop (also known as the Bus Stop chicane) and the carousel.
Drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will barrel down the longest straight on the track toward my position at more than 180 mph before hitting the brakes the hardest they will during the lap to slow down to approximately 95 mph. Here, they will cut the course by hopping over a very large curb on the right-hand side, and before the car has all four tires on the ground, they already will be set up to turn the car left over another curb.
And then they will reach the center of the inner loop corner, aiming left and starting to accelerate towards the carousel. But before they get to the carousel, they will launch over a massive curb on the left and another one over on the right side (occasionally dropping tires into the dirt). Finally, they have to settle down the bucking bull that the car has become to turn right into the long carousel corner at about 100 mph.
All of this makes it an incredibly complex and tough corner. The car constantly is bouncing, juking, sliding and launching off the ground. It generally is unsettled and, at times, out of control.
To be fast here, you need to have a great car, but you also need to make the car do a million different things in the span of a few short seconds. And to be truly fast, you need to be comfortable with the car being completely out of your control at times. You will need to trust that, eventually, it will fall back into your hands.
This past weekend, I was given my own private viewing session of one driver doing exactly that. I watched a whole weekend’s worth of race cars come through my section. One car continually stood out, and it wasn’t every couple of laps. There was no difference between practice, qualifying or the race.
Every. Single. Time.
Whenever there were cars on the track, his was simply astonishing.
He won the pole for the Cup race by almost half a second, which is astounding when considering the talent pool in the Cup series that I would argue is the deepest in any form of racing in the world. And I firmly believe much of where he made up that half-second was in my section.
Every time he exited the inner loop into the carousel in practice, my hand would hover over the “talkback” button that connects me to our producers, so I could be ready to alert them by yelling, “Trouble!”
Because each time Busch’s car was so sideways, doing so many wiggles and out of control, I thought, “Surely he is going to wreck.”
Then there was the end of final practice. Busch came through the inner loop and dropped two tires into the grass on the exit. This knocked the car sideways – but not a little sideways. I mean full-on opposite lock at 100 mph.
He somehow controlled the slide, leaving a long strip of black marks on the asphalt while continuing to the pits. In a modern-day Cup car, that shouldn’t be possible.
Ask our producers: I screamed.
Now onto the race.
Busch would set sail from the rest of the field and easily win the first stage by around 7 seconds over eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr.
Where was he gaining a lot of this time? The inner loop to the carousel.
As I told a couple officials from a very iconic race team this weekend, “If you want to know where the 18 car is beating you, come down to my section of the track and watch.”
But it got better from here. As Busch’s team had the unfortunate penalty that forced him to pit a second time and start from the back of the field. He would drive all the way into the top 10 in 20 laps to end the second stage.
Which set him up for the final run. As he barreled down into my section on the restart after the second stage ended, he would make a massive outbraking move on Brad Keselowski. It was so extraordinary, Brad had no idea he was there. This would result in both spinning to the outside of the track.
Here Busch would start a march forward of epic proportions.
Over the entirety of the final stage, he drove like a man possessed. And nowhere was there a better example than the way he was kicking up dirt and grass every time he came through the inner loop. Even when I wasn’t looking directly toward the section, I knew he was coming because of the massive plume of dust.
His car constantly was wiggling as the rear end danced and bounced around. And he continually would be closing the gap on cars or passing them. That normally shouldn’t be possible.
The results won’t show how much better he was than the field in my section. But upon reflection, I will remember last weekend for knowing I witnessed one of those heroic great driver moments.
Most of all, it proved what I feel makes Kyle so good when he is at his best. He is comfortable with the car being uncomfortable and at times completely out of control.
Good drivers do this every now and then. Great drivers are comfortable with this feeling more than not. But legends know no other way.
That’s what makes Kyle Busch so damn good. Every time he drives a race car, he knows only one way: completely out of control and uncomfortable.
To him, this is normal.