It’s finally happened.
A high-profile professional athlete has found out what things are like in the real world.
No more pampering, no more putting up with temper-tantrums, no more embarrassing the boss or the sponsor who pays the bills.
Kurt Busch has been told by Roger Penske not to let the door hit him in the butt on the way out. He’s been fired, canned, downsized, whacked.
And not a minute too soon.
Penske fired driver Busch late Sunday as the result of a public meltdown following his elimination from the season-ending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier this month.
Penske waited until the weekend's end-of-season ceremonies in Las Vegas were over before handing Busch the pink slip. According to Charlotte.com, which broke the story Sunday night, the official announcement would be made some time Monday (Penske link here).
(Both Busch and a spokesman for Penske Corp. said Monday afternoon that Busch was not fired but that there was an amicable parting of the ways. Both Busch and the Penske executive couldn't have said nicer things about each other if they'd been written . . .)
The reason for the firing - er, amicable parting of the ways - was Busch's tirade directed at ESPN/ABC pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch when the network was slow to leave race action in order for the driver to be interviewed after he was forced out of the race because of transmission problems.
After asking "why can't we tape this?" Busch became agitated and swore at both interviewer Punch and a camerman. Eventually, Punch said to "forget it" and walked off. Busch went into the Penske hauler but the scene was recorded on video by a fan with a cellphone (see the video below).
Warning: Strong language
This was the third or fourth incident this season in which Kurt Busch - not to be confused with his younger brother Kyle Busch, who escaped being fired recently by Joe Gibbs Racing after losing his temper during a Camping World Truck Series race and deliberately wrecking an opponent - lost control of his emotions.
He dressed down his crew and swore at his crew chief during a race (the profanity over the team radio was heard on live television), had to be restrained from attacking a television reporter who asked him a charged question and refused to answer questions when confronted by another journalist.
Some of these transgressions may appear to be minor (I sympathized - somewhat - with Busch when I saw the cellphone video of the Punch incident; he had just suffered a major disappointment and had to wait, and wait, and wait to be interviewed when, I'm sure, he just wanted to get out of there) but in the commercial world of NASCAR, where the teams and drivers are paid millions to represent corporations who are providing those millions, you can't behave like a Saturday night dirt car jockey just starting out.
As professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey and golf players are not allowed to behave like jerks, racing drivers aren't either. Both Busch brothers have lost sight of this throughout their careers and it is to Roger Penske's credit that he said enough is enough, and pulled the plug.
You wonder if executives at Mars Inc., which agreed with Joe Gibbs to continue to support Kyle Busch in 2012 after removing their wraps from his cars in the last two races of 2011, might be wondering today if they should have done the same thing.
Of course, Mars has an executive board and those things are quicksand when it comes to making a decision. Penske runs Penske and his word is law. Although Roger has a board of directors, it's clear that he calls the shots. And he calls those shots pretty well.
It's also clear that Kurt Busch didn't see the dismissal coming. He gave a press conference in Las Vegas on Friday in which he talked about working through some issues with a sports psychologist but then veered off on a tangent and said some pretty strong things about a previous employer.
He must have known he was walking on thin ice and yet he still kept going further and further out from shore.
The ice finally broke Sunday night.
There are few, if any, good rides available for 2012, so Busch could be in some trouble - unless he takes his personal millions and purchases the Red Bull team, which is in the process of going out of business, and runs his own entry.
On the other hand, this might turn out to be good news for Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish was a highly successful Indy car driver for Penske but has had trouble adapting to stock cars.
However, Penske has never wavered in his support for Hornish, who won the second-last Nationwide Series race this year (his first in NASCAR), and announced plans to run him for a full season in the Nationwide in 2012.
Might Penske move Hornish up to the big team? We'll see.
'KURT BUSCH STILL DOESN'T GET IT' - SEE NORRIS McDONALD'S TUESDAY COMMENTARY HERE
Meantime, last week was not a good one for promising young Canadian racing drivers.
Two, in particular.
Ironically, they're both profiled in the current issue of Sportsnet magazine as young guys on the way up.
Robert Wickens, 22, of Guelph and Toronto, was the first one to get a kick in the stomach when he found out, at the Grand Prix of Brazil, that a Formula One ride in 2012 that he had been led to believe he had a shot at was being given to a young European driver whose curriculum vitae is nowhere near Wickens’s.
There was Wickens, at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo, site of the last F1 race of the 2011 season, in his role as official reserve driver for the Marussa-Virgin F1 team. He was reigning champion of the World Series by Renault and had been told by his sponsor, the Marussia supercar company, that all they were looking for in a potential F1 driver was results.
He had kept his part of the bargain and delivered, in spades. He had won the 2011 Renault F3.5 title after two seasons of finishing second in two other European F1 feeder series, Formula 2 and GP3.
So right in the middle of the Grand Prix weekend, Wickens find out – as did the world – that a young French driver named Charles Pic, who in six years of racing in comparable series to Wickens had never finished higher than third in the standings, would become a Formula One driver in 2012 as a teammate to the underachieving Timo Glock.
Of course, the Marussia-Virgin F1 team – like most of the teams in F1 these days (McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari excepted) – never saw a cheque it didn’t like. Despite what Wickens had been told, that all Marussa was looking for was results, in the end they went for the money and not the talent.
So that was disappointment No. 1. Here comes No. 2.
In mid-week, James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, who had won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year, found out that he was suddenly unemployed as a result of his team, Newman/Haas Racing, announcing it would not be participating in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012.
Hinchcliffe, who turns 25 today (Monday), had paid his dues and was enjoying his success. A veteran of the Formula BMW, Star Mazda, Champ Car Atlantic, A1-GP and Indy Lights series, Hinch put all his eggs in one basket over the winter of 2010-11 and made it plain that it would be the Big Leagues or nothing by the time spring and summer arrived.
Thank goodness that the Toronto investment firm Sprott Inc. opted to sponsor him. Despite missing the opening race of the season, Hinchcliffe went on to finish 12th in points, won the rookie title and looked to be well on his way.
But then came Thursday’s announcement and despite putting his best face forward – "I'll have to regroup but there are still some seats available on good teams," he told me on the phone – he had clearly been gobsmacked.
"Hinch," like Wickens, is the perfect driver for a modern-day racing team: fast in the car but – just as important – social media savvy. He’s just the ticket needed to connect with young fans.
Although not officially disappointment No. 3, the fact that two young tiger Canadian drivers are now looking for rides in 2012 does not bode well for Paul Tracy in his quest to land full-time employment in 2012 (I still maintain Wickens would be better off trying Indy cars than continuing to try to make an impression in Europe).
It was going to be an iffy proposition in any event. Love him as we all do, Tracy is just not as fast as he was when he was a kid and when push comes to shove, and the choice comes down to a Wickens or a Hinchcliffe or a Tracy, some car owner is going to nod toward the first two before he sticks out his hand to the veteran who's third in line.
And that, as Stone Cold Steve Austin would say, is the bottom line.
– Tony Stewart was crowned NASCAR Sprint Cup champion in Las Vegas at the weekend and that pretty much wraps up the 2011 season. The Red Bull stock car team is kaput (although there is a rumour around that someone still wants to buy it . . . Jacques Villeneuve, perhaps? . . . but just what is left to purchase?) The employees have all been let go and what infrastructure remains is anybody’s guess.
On the driver front, Kyle Busch is being urged to just be a Sprint Cup driver in 2012; the thinking being that trying to race in three series might be contributing to his periodic meltdowns. Meantime, his brother, Kurt Busch, has let it be known he's working with a sports psychologist to try to get his emotions under control.
– Autosport magazine threw a gala in London Sunday night and handed out a pile of awards. Sebastien Vettel was named international racing driver of the year and Jenson Button was honoured as British driver of the year. Dan Wheldon was given a posthumous award to recognize his lifetime achievements in motorsport, which was accepted by his father, Clive, and his IndyCar friend and rival, Dario Franchitti. F1 driver Paul di Resta was named Rookie of the Year.
– French driver Sebastien Ogier won the Race of Champions over Tom Kristensen at the Esprit Arena in Dusseldorf. Michael Schumacher and a whole bunch of racing people were there. In Brazil, F1 driver Jaime Alguersuari won Felipe Massa’s annual go-kart celebrity race with Lucas di Grassi and Rubens Barrichello second and third. Jules Bianchi, a soon-to-be-Ferrari driver (development program) actually won but was disqualified for being underweight. His car was too light, that is.
– The World of Outlaws sprint cars will race four times in five nights in Canada next July, kicking off their "northern swing" at Autodrome Granby, Autodrome Drummondville, Cornwall Motor Speedway and then the Brantford-area Ohsweken Speedway, where the feature this year was won by none other than Tony Stewart. Trust me on this: if you have never seen the Outlaws in action, go.