CONCORD, N.C.—Kurt Busch’s continued philanthropic endeavors made him a natural choice for the National Motorsports Press Association Pocono Spirit Award for 2022.
His ongoing support of his 23XI Racing team, despite enduring his own challenges following a season-ending concussion at Pocono Raceway in July, solidified the NMPA’s decision.
Busch was voted as the first quarter winner for his unwavering advocacy of U.S. Troops through his support of the nonprofit program Veteran Tickets Foundation or Vet Tix.
The 2004 NASCAR Cup champion continued his “Window of Hope” initiative, where NASCAR drivers race with pink window nets at the Charlotte Roval in October, to bring attention to breast cancer awareness.
Busch received the award at the NMPA luncheon on Sunday.
“It's been a really interesting year,” Busch said. “At the same time, the foundation of things that I've put together—and giving back for all of our race fans, our communities, the military, and with breast cancer awareness with our Window of Hope—has been so much fun and so rewarding.”
Following the Bank of America Roval 400, drivers autographed the pink window nets which were auctioned off through the NASCAR Foundation. Proceeds benefitted Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute’s Project Pink.
Former NASCAR president and current vice chairman Mike Helton, who received the Landmark Award from the NASCAR Hall of Fame last Friday, piqued Busch’s interest in military projects.
“It's moving, it's heartbreaking, it's humbling,” Busch said. “And it's an experience that younger drivers need to go and see as well as younger athletes to understand that freedom isn't free and sacrifices have been made. It helped me cope with some of my bad days. These men and women have been through hell and back. It's the least that I can give and do is to just make sure there's a ticket available for our military to come to the race.
“And yes, Mr. Mike Helton inspired me to go for my first visit, and then it just continues to grow from there.”
The driver has visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center multiple times as well as hosted troops at the track.
“I stay in contact with different men and women through texts, and calls,” Busch said. “One guy that I knew from the Kentucky region, he’s now the guy that's the commander of helping the parachute people at pre-race land on the grass in the infield area. He asked me, ‘Where can I connect with NASCAR to have this opportunity?’
“I wanted to help him out..so it's just neat to give back in small and unique ways.”
Seeing the response from fans, whether it’s part of the military contingent or breast cancer survivors Busch has encountered since initiating Window of Hope in 2019, has been rewarding for the 44-year-old competitor.
“The biggest thing that I receive is when people activate it and make it go further for the individuals if a Vet Tickets is available,” Busch said. “And now I'm getting a high five in the pit area from a military member. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I didn't give you pit passes.’ And they're like, ‘No, you gave us the inspiration to get here, and then we worked on the next step.’
“That's where that program and with Window of Hope, it snowballs with really good people all the way around. So I've been inspired by the fans, been inspired by the military. And I'm just happy to give back.”
The NMPA Pocono Spirit Award was created in 1992 in an effort to recognize character and achievement by competitors in the face of adversity as well as sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports. Some previous recipients of the award have battled through illness, injury, or tragedy to stage remarkable comebacks in racing.
Busch was recruited by Denny Hamlin last year to anchor 23XI Racing and bring veteran leadership to the organization. In May, he scored his 34th career Cup win with his fourth different manufacturer and fifth different team.
Busch was expected to qualify for his 10th-consecutive playoff run when he was injured at Pocono after backing into the wall during qualifying prior to the 21st race of the 2022 season. He’s been sidelined ever since.
“I'm hoping to get cleared, but I'm still not cleared to race” Busch said.“I feel it at that same level. I'm still missing that last little bit to compete at 100 percent with the best of the best in this sport. So continuing therapy--the physical side of it, the mental side of it.
“And with 23XI, my family there with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, we're working on that third car and it's there. There's that easy opportunity. It's just a matter of plugging all of it back in the right way.
“So if I can't drive, I'll still be at the track helping our team, our engineers, consulting and being around Bubba (Wallace) and Tyler Reddick and making 23XI a more competitive place that can win more races and compete for championships.”
Busch did just that last year, offering his expertise to Wallace and helping backup driver Ty Gibbs acclimate to the Cup Series. He accompanied 23XI during their recent test at Circuit of the Americas. The veteran racer also served on driver committees with NASCAR in an effort to improve safety and enhance the sport.
If Busch is able to return to competition, he doesn’t expect to race full-time. However, the lifelong Cubs fan would love to race at the inaugural Chicago Street Course, make his debut at North Wilkesboro or return to some of his favorite venues such as Watkins Glen or Homestead. But Chicago tops his list.
“It would be incredible,” Busch said. “I'll have the 'W' flag ready just in case with the win. But to be part of something so unique and so different, that's why I stuck around for the Next Gen car and the Colosseum last year. And all these new road courses and now here we are.
“Something I've been telling (NASCAR principals) Steve O'Donnell and Steve Phelps and Ben Kennedy for years is we need to be on the streets somewhere. We need to be in the city center. And so it's neat to kind of throw a nugget out, and they pulled it off with Chicago, Illinois. So, here we go.”