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Doubling down for the troops

May. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
NASCAR: STP Gas Booster 500
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch celebrates in victory lane after winning the STP Gas Booster 500 in March at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports)
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Kurt Busch hopes his long day of racing May 25 will help service members with their long roads to recovery.

Busch will attempt to become the fourth driver to race both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 since 1994, when the 600-miler moved to the evening and made the journey possible. The former NASCAR Sprint Cup champ is using “the double” to raise money for, and awareness of, the Armed Forces Foundation, which assists military families in need.

And he’s drawing on service members he’s met and bonded with over the years for inspiration and perspective. Compared with their work, Busch said, “1,100 miles — that doesn’t hold a candle.”

The AFF has raised more than $95 million since its founding in 2001 — paying hotel bills for families visiting wounded warriors, assisting struggling vets and service members with mortgages, and educating the public and lawmakers on the effects of post-traumatic stress. It’s run by Patricia Driscoll, who met Busch at a joint AFF/NASCAR fundraiser at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a little more than three years ago. They’ve been together ever since.

Busch talked to Military Times about his preparation for the big day and his experiences working with — and even racing — wounded warriors.

Q. What inspired you to turn “the double” into a charity event benefiting the AFF?

A. It fits real nicely with my respect for the military and what Memorial Day weekend means for me. Memorial Day weekend is a nice weekend for motorsports to shine. ... You get to see the two races here in the states, and the amount of respect shown to the red, white and blue, the patriotism. When I signed the contract with Andretti [Autosport] to do the 500, it clicked in my head. ... I hope I’m able to raise awareness and support for the military — the people that give me the freedom to go out there and do my job, to race cars at 200 miles an hour.

Q. What has your experience been like with “Troops to the Track,” the NASCAR-AFF joint project?

A. We try to select men and women who are struggling with PTSD and TBI. We go into the regions where our races are ... the counselors will recommend who is a candidate to get out to the track. They end up being their own counselors for the day, whether they know it or not. We’re putting them through groups of people. There’s loud noises. It might not simulate exactly what they’ve been through [in combat], but it’s similar: loud bang, flyover overhead. ... It puts them through sequences that help them ease the pain.

Q. After your Sprint Cup win in Martinsville, Virginia, you were in Rep. John Boehner’s office days later, talking about helping troops. How did that go?

A. I follow Patricia’s leads on Capitol Hill. She carries a big stick when she walks out there. ... As a spokesperson for AFF, I can use my notoriety; as a professional athlete, that opens up doors. There’s no formal direction [to these conversations]. That helps me talk about my passion for the military. If you have a lighthearted conversation about what we really need to do, they know we’ve got our ear to the ground.

Q. Obviously you thank troops for their service and talk to them about how AFF can help, but what do troops say to you when you meet with them?

A. They’re intrigued by the racing world. A few of them are right on the cusp of getting discharged, and they’re interested in jobs. Being involved in motorsports, it’s a little bit different — you could say that there are some bridges that are very close that you could cross between motorsports and the military. I try to get them interested in going to North Carolina and seeing some of the race teams.

Q. Were you challenged to a go-kart race by a patient at Walter Reed?

A. [Marine Staff Sgt.] Liam Dwyer. He’s in the rehab room at Walter Reed and he’s got a prosthetic leg, and his arm, the muscle tissue has been torn up. ... He recognized me, I go over there and shake his hand, we start talking. Then he says, “When I get out of here in a couple of weeks, we need to go racing. We need to go go-karting. I know you’ll jump into anything, and I’m going to kick your ass.” I’m like, “Abso-freaking-lutely, I’ll be there.” When somebody calls you out, you don’t shy away from that. ... He held his own. He did well.

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