By Jeff Haden
Contributor at Inc.
Need an example of how to blend career, personal interests, and family into a happy and healthy whole? Look no farther than NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.
Money, while important, is almost never the sole reason entrepreneurs start their own businesses. Most also wish to make their own decisions. To chart their own course. To be their own boss. To bet on themselves and reap the rewards of hard work, persistence, and determination. To turn a passion into a career. To someday turn their professional and personal interests into a lifestyle that makes trying to achieve a reasonable work-life balance irrelevant -- because work has become an integral part of "life," in the best possible way. For many, that is the entrepreneurial dream. And Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, is living that dream.
Even though he's only 41 years old, Kurt has quietly become a NASCAR elder statesman. While his 680 starts leads all active Monster Energy Cup Series drivers, the results are more remarkable than longevity. He's won 31 races at the Cup level, including the Daytona 500. He won the Cup series championship in 2004. He's won races in each of the three top divisions of NASCAR. In his first IndyCar series start he finished 6th -- in the Indianapolis 500. He's run the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He's even raced a NHRA Pro Stock dragster.
In short, he's a racer's racer. But he's also used his racing career as a springboard for achieving personal goals and exploring personal interests. A die-hard Cubs fan, Kurt has leveraged sponsor appearances to reach his goal of seeing a game in all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. He's leveraged years of doing media interviews, public speaking, and sponsor representation into an insightful, thoughtful, and approachable style as a broadcaster. He's leveraged his celebrity and name recognition to support a variety of causes, most notably giving away 100 tickets for every 2019 race to military members and veterans through the KB100 Ticket Giveaway.
And he, and to much larger extent his wife Ashley (a world-class polo player in her own right), leveraged their comfort with the spotlight to star in the CMT series Racing Wives. "Ashley wanted to do something a little different," Kurt says, "and we're both at points in our careers that no matter what is shown, no matter what they encourage us to talk about or what we bring to them... it was a good fit for many different reasons."
Add it all up, and he's accomplished the seemingly impossible: Finding a work-life balance that actually works, especially in a profession where the demands can be so all-consuming that reaching the top brings with it the risk of becoming one-dimensional.
Partly that's because Kurt's default answer is still "yes." With success in any field comes the ability to say no: To requests, to suggestions, to tasks or projects or "opportunities." Many successful people attribute their success, at least in part, to learning how to say no. (See Buffett, Warren.)
Not Kurt. "I'm a 'yes' guy," Kurt says. "There are still opportunities everywhere to make sure the sponsor is happy and to make an impact on their behalf. That's my job. If someone wants something to happen, and I can help make it happen... I say yes."
Even for a driver who only does the minimum, the degree of sponsor obligations required is at least somewhat unique to motorsports. While all professional sports involve sponsor relations, player involvement is comparatively minimal. In racing, the top drivers spend significantly more time at appearances, events, media availabilities, promotional activities, etc. than they do at the race shop or track.
The result is a challenging leadership model: Kurt is both a part and one of the leaders of his team, yet he's in large part physically removed from his team.
"In some ways I'm more of an independent contractor," Kurt says, "and I provide my services to the team. But it's not just driving. There's the leadership side of it. Sponsorship management. I enjoy, at this stage of my career, helping young engineers and crew members find the next level for themselves. It's to make everyone better around you. That's what people did for me early in my career, because I was willing to go after the next level, and push myself, and to have that work ethic.
"In whatever way you choose to define our roles, in the end we're all helping each other," Kurt says. "We're a team, and that's the only way we can all succeed."
Yet in some ways, Kurt's job is very different from most. The average driver's career is a source of constant public speculation: Who will lose his ride, who might go where...
When I resigned (got fired), few people knew. A driver loses his or her job, and millions of people know. Their professional lives are exceptionally public.
"Is it weird having your personal life or business out there to be talked about, or for people to perceive a certain way?" Kurt says. "At first it was frightening. When Jack Roush's team picked me and put me in the number 97 John Deere car we were 27th in the points, floundering around in the back of the pack... and I didn't know if I'd make it.
"Over time, the way things have settled, I have no qualms. People can talk if they want to. People can have opinions. I've had a great relationship - close to a decade now - with Monster Energy. That's the fun. That's the foundation: Who I've become, where I'm going, the goals we all have together fit together with Ganassi... so I don't feel pressure about that."
Partly that's because Kurt is an integral part of the Monster team. To him, it's a long-term business relationship that has turned into a personal relationship, so much so that he often suggests ideas. One was participating in the goldRush Rally, an annual event that benefits the Taylor Lynn Foundation.
"High end, exotic cars," Kurt says. "Driving across the country. A bunch of my buddies pitching in. Great cause, great cause that Monster jumped at the chance to get behind...
"It's who I am," he says. "My attitude is the same as Monster Energy. Lifestyle in a can, and you don't know what's around the next corner. We have fun doing cross-promotions, doing things that move the needle for the company, for fans, and for the Monster Energy brand... but I don't feel like a spokesperson. I'm proud that I represent the brand in NASCAR. But I'm just as proud to be part of the Monster family."
Long-term sponsor relationships are generally built on a foundation of on-track success; Kurt reached the pinnacle of that success when he won the 2004 championship.
"When I crossed the finish line," Kurt says, "I had a vision of when I was a kid, dreaming about winning a NASCAR championship at the top level. Then it was the people - the team, the family support, that flashed through my mind next. But it finally hit me when I was doing a photo shoot four hours later, still in my suit, all wet from the champagne spray. I was holding the trophy, and the trophy was talking to me. (Laughs.) It was pure joy."
But careers aren't built on a single year. In 2012, after Kurt left Penske Racing, he turned down other options to sign with Phoenix Racing, an underfunded team with limited prospects. Later he was a key figure in the Furniture Row Racing story, playing a key role in building the foundation of what would become a championship-winning team.
Race wins and championship aside, Kurt is extremely proud of those years, too.
"The second half of my career is similar to the way a lot of young drivers have to work their way up," Kurt says. "You start with a 'C' level team, or if you're lucky, a 'B' level team, and work your way up to an 'A level' team.
"When I left Penske, I thought, 'I know who I am. I know what I can do. I believe in myself.' So joining Phoenix Racing and in a way starting over... it sounded like a really fun challenge. Plus, there was nowhere to go but up." (Laughs.)
Within a few years, "up" included race wins at A-level teams like Stewart-Haas Racing and CGR.
"The things I've accomplished, the relationships I've built, the way everything in my life has come together... I'm proud of my career. And I'm really proud of the second half of my career -- both professionally and personally."
Work-life balance? Maybe Kurt Busch really has figured it out.