Full disclosure: I’ve watched “Talladega Nights” all of once.
And as I tell everybody who cares to listen and quite a few who don’t, I left the movie theater unimpressed, considering that they made essentially the same movie — 1983′s “Stroker Ace” with Bert Reynolds, Loni Anderson, Jim Nabors and Ned Beatty — 23 years earlier. It did a far better job poking fun at the NASCAR universe, from shilling for a sponsor you hate to humbling an upstart who hasn’t shown respect.
You can have your “Shake ‘n’ Bake” and “Baby Jesus.” I’ll take Lugs Harvey, Clyde Torkle’s Chicken Pit and the “Fastest Chicken in the South” any day.
In the ’80s, poking fun at NASCAR with a script was the way to go. But by the 21at century, this thing called reality television became en vogue.
Occasionally, it was even real.
And Sunday, “The Real World: Talladega,” starring Kurt Busch, proved to be a much more compelling story than Will Ferrell’s theatrical counterpart.
On the surface, it was just marketing genius. Busch, attempting a comeback with a tiny team after his demons kneecapped his top-flight ride, sported Ricky Bobby’s “ME” paint scheme, the car Ferrell’s character drove to redemption when he faced similar career troubles.
Actually, for Busch it’s a much deeper story. The idea was hatched and mostly executed by Busch’s girlfriend, marketing executive Patricia Driscoll. Driscoll and Busch’s relationship was publicly unveiled when she appeared for the national anthem in Sonoma last year, making clear his marriage to the former Eva Bryan was kaput.
NASCAR’s traveling media crew knew the marriage was over for months but kept it under their hats, the argument being that they didn’t want to do tabloid journalism. I’ve always disagreed. Busch’s early-season radio meltdown at Richmond made the divorce story fair game, as it would’ve provided context into what might have made it so hard for Busch to control his emotions.
If Busch’s issues had been faced instead of coddled earlier in the year, it may not have regressed into a season-ending tirade at Homestead that cost him his job. I was blown off by a Busch PR rep at the Dover Chase race when I wanted to ask the driver if he would consider following Denny Hamlin’s lead and see a sports psychologist. He ended up going to a shrink — after it was too late to save his gig with Roger Penske.
Busch said more than once that going back to the basics with a no-frills team, Phoenix Racing, was just what he needed. Sharing a Nationwide ride with brother Kyle was significant at a time he was already trying to better himself, considering whispers that the two weren’t particularly close.
With Kurt Busch enjoying racing again and his bond with his brother as strong as ever — little brother/car owner Kyle could barely keep it together when Kurt won at Richmond last week — it was time to become a superstar again. Kurt needed money to do that. And pulling off a publicity stunt that trended worldwide on Twitter went a long way toward getting there — even if he did get spun out in the final laps when he was in contention.
As Busch drove the wrong way onto pit road for service, he got more than a polite round of applause from the Talladega crowd for putting on such a great show. The black hat was finally off Busch, which is crucial. His behavior last year went from outlaw-ish to boorish, making him completely unmarketable. Now his phone will ring off the hook.
His new love has taken a huge step toward giving him back everything he lost. After what she’s done, I have a feeling he’ll listen to her and avoid many of last year’s pitfalls. I wish NASCAR’s newest power couple the best of luck.
(By the way, if I see Clyde Torkle’s Chicken Pit on the quarterpanels next week at Darlington, you’ve got a fan for life.)
Follow Josh Stewart on Twitter @JoshNASCARWWE