Las Vegas’s Own Water Boy
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), returns to his hometown for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Interestingly enough, it brings Busch back to the place where, almost a decade and a half ago, he took a leave of absence from working the graveyard shift at the Las Vegas Valley Water District to pursue his NASCAR racing dream.
After graduating in 1996 from Durango High School in Spring Valley, Nev., Busch left his home state for a year to pursue a pharmacy degree at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After a year during which schoolwork literally took a back seat in his car on the way to and from races, Busch decided to move back to Las Vegas and try his hand at working for the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
When Busch was about 9 years old, his father asked him, “What do you need to survive in this world?” When the younger Busch responded by saying, “Money,” his father told him to think of a public utility that you can’t live without. That conversation led him to pursue a career at the water district.
After a couple of internships, Busch eventually scored a full-time job working the graveyard shift in 1998, replacing fire hydrants, service lines and water main breaks. The schedule turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed Busch to work four 10-hour days from Monday night until Friday morning. That allowed him to go racing on the weekends.
In 2000, Busch’s passion for racing led to a contract to drive for Roush Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, prompting him to take a 12-month leave of absence from the Las Vegas Valley Water District so he could pursue his racing dreams. It was only a leave so he could protect his position on the graveyard crew in case he failed at his racing dreams and needed to return to Las Vegas.
Fortunately for Busch, 11 months later he picked up the phone and called his boss to inform him that he could fill the vacant position and that he was going to go full-time Sprint Cup Series racing the next year for Roush Racing.
As a token of appreciation to his water district crew that held his position, Busch came back to Las Vegas in March 2001 to throw a pizza party for all his former co-workers.
Now 15 years later, Busch is set to make his 473rd career Sprint Cup Series start, this time for his new team at SHR in the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet.
Haas Automation has served as a primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series for 11 different drivers and 111 races since 2002. When Busch takes the green flag in Sunday’s Kobalt 400, he will also be attempting to make his first visit to victory lane since his last Sprint Cup win in October 2011 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the Western World, is owned by SHR founder and co-owner Gene Haas.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 HAAS Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What were you doing for work in Las Vegas before becoming a racer?
“I worked for the Las Vegas Valley Water District. We were pretty much the construction and fixer-upper group. We replaced service lines, fire hydrants and, on the graveyard shifts, we handled water main breaks that were large issues. I did it for three years. I did a couple of summer internships, which eventually led to a full-time position. I was gone to the University of Arizona for a year and, when I came back, I applied for a job there to try and get some steady income rolling. But really, all along, it was about racing. Racing, racing, racing … that’s where I wanted to be. So the graveyard shift was a blessing in disguise. I’d go to work at 8 p.m. and I’d get off at 6 a.m. We would work four ‘10s,’ so I would go to work four days a week and, when I got off on Friday at 6 a.m., I didn’t have to be back to work until 8 p.m. on Monday. That gave me all weekend to play with racecars. Fridays were the roughest because I’d just stay up and go to the race shop and mess with the cars. Or that might be a travel day with the Southwest Tour team. Then, on Monday, I would sleep all day and then get up and go to work.”
And you took a leave of absence to go pursue your racing dreams?
“When I got an offer from Roush Racing to drive in the Truck Series – I mean, you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. Am I going to make it? Can I survive at that level? So instead of just quitting without a fallback plan, I manned up and went in to talk to the big boss man’s office and said, ‘I’ve got this chance to go pursue my racing dream. If it doesn’t work out, I would like to ask for a leave of absence for a year to hold my position.’ I think he was caught off-guard by a 20-year-old asking for a leave of absence to go chase his dream down. He responded, ‘Oh, heck yeah! I’ll give it to you.’ I don’t think he ever thought about the side effects of potentially having me come back if I didn’t make it in racing. I don’t know if I would have got my spot back or not, but he said it was good.”
Did you ever have to call him back and tell him he could fill your position?
“I called him after 11 months of racing in the Truck Series, because Jack (Roush) took me to Cup – and at that time it was even more of a risk at the Cup level, but I figured if I made it in Trucks, I’d be OK in Cup. So I called him after 11 months and told him thanks for holding the spot open but I’m probably not coming back. I told him I’d be back next March and if I could coordinate a pizza party for all the guys on my crew, I’d like to do that. So I came back in March and bought pizza for everyone as a thank you for holding my spot. I was the new guy working on the water crew and helping do the grunt work – that was my job and task – but there were a lot of life lessons that I learned there from those guys.”
Did you ever think what it would be like if you had to come back to that job?
“It’s funny, in Phoenix last week, I ran into a guy named Vern – he was one of my crew leaders, but has since retired. And here he is in my autograph line at the souvenir trailer and he said, ‘Hey Kurt, remember me? I’m Vern.’ It was good – I was like, ‘Yeah, Vern, I remember you.’ That group of guys isn’t there anymore and I’m sure it’s different and wouldn’t be the same, but when I was a kid about 9 years old and my Dad asked me, ‘What do you need to live in life?’ I said, ‘Money.’ He said, ‘Nope. Pick a utility. Do you need power, phone, television, water?’ I said, ‘I suppose you could live without all of those except water.’ So he told me to go find a job at the water district. It’s kind of funny that, at 9 years old, that was the direction he was trying to push me.”
- Mike Zizzo
Director of Media Relations
Texas Motor Speedway