Photos courtesy NHRA

NHRA: How Bo Butner went from party animal to rehab and on to world champion

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Bo Butner admits he used to love a good drink – or two or even three – especially after a win or good finish at a drag race.

It’s not unusual for racers to do that; it’s practically part of the culture to have a beer or two after a long day of battling opponents on the quarter-mile.

But as the Floyds Knobs, Indiana native got more successful as a sportsman racer in NHRA competition, the more he partied. He began to sense he had a problem but always felt he could handle it.

Bo Butner

That is, until a DUI arrest prompted him to go into a 16-week, in-house rehab session at Talbott Recovery in Atlanta in 2007, the year after Butner captured the 2006 NHRA Competition Eliminator championship.

“I’m not a lot different than a lot of people,” Butner told MotorSportsTalk. “I was fortunate to know I had an issue and a problem.

“I’ve had a great life and have been blessed. I’ve been racing for 22 years, and probably half of that, I was a party guy. I’d drink a lot and dabbled in other stuff. Luckily, I got some help. Talbott saved my life.

“I mean, I’m a father of four. I didn’t act like it, but I was. I decided at that point I had to change my life, something needs to happen because this isn’t right. You’ll end up an old man alone. Your friends will die off or run off and this was the only road.

“Luckily, I only had (one stint in rehab) and I picked up one life chip. I’m going on 11 years sober now. I can’t have a drop. I won’t take morphine or anything over an Advil. I won’t do it. There’s probably a possibility I could have a drink today, but why chance it? Life’s good.

“I like to say it a lot, but I’ve been at the right place at the right time in my life and that includes drag racing and getting sober.”

When he emerged from the four-month stint in Atlanta, Butner was sober for the first time in over a decade. Interestingly, it was his love of drag racing that helped get him through – and continues to keep him through – recovery.

“As soon as I got out of rehab, I wanted to go test a race car,” Butner said. “So I went off in this really fast car and I shut off at half-track. I made another run and shut off at half-track again. My crew guys asked what was wrong, and I told them, ‘Man, this thing is all over the place.’ They said it was as straight as it’s ever been.

“Then I got to thinking, I never drove this car sober. Not literally drunk, but more in a sober state of mind because you think totally different, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Getting sober was the best thing Butner could do for himself personally, but also professionally as a drag racer. It helped lead him to move to the Pro Stock class in 2015, joining with legendary KB Racing drivers Greg Anderson and Jason Line, who have seven Pro Stock championships between them.

2017 Springnationals winners, from left, Leah Pritchett, Ron Capps and Bo Butner, who celebrated his first career NHRA Pro Stock win.

Butner couldn’t have picked a stronger or more successful team to align himself with. He would earn nine runner-up finishes before breaking through with his first Pro Stock win in April 2017.

Seven months and four more wins later, Butner had climbed the Pro Stock mountain to the top, winning last season’s championship.

“I beat the boss man (Anderson) in the semifinal,” Butner said of last year’s season-ending race at Pomona. “A little guy from Floyds Knobs, Indiana was second in the world at that point after that round.

“Greg still looked like he’d have enough points to win the championship, but I had lane choice in the final round against young Tanner Grey. I told myself I can outrun him and win this race.

“So, going back to that right place, right time thing, Tanner has a blowout in his tire at half-track and it slowed him down and I rolled on (to win). It was unbelievable. I still get chills up my back talking about it.”

But just as important to Butner is how he’s been able to serve as an inspiration and role model for others who are struggling with alcohol or substance abuse.

He treasures and values his white “life chip” (given to those who successfully complete abuse programs) as much as he does the world championship trophy he won last November.

“I’ve just been very fortunate to have a lot of support, especially from the fans,” Butner said. “I’m open with everybody. I’ll have people come up and give me their (life) chips. It’s so awesome. It’s a big community but it isn’t talked about a lot.”

Butner on his way to his first win of 2018 in the season-opening race at Pomona, California.

Butner takes pride in his achievements both on and off the racetrack. In addition to his Comp Eliminator and Pro Stock championships, he’s also a successful businessman. He owns two car dealerships in southern Indiana, just north of Louisville, that were started by his grandfather in 1955.

But as proud as he is of his racing and business achievements, he’s equally proud of being an inspiration to others.

“Anybody who knows anything about AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) knows you don’t broadcast it, you don’t advertise it,” Butner said. “A crew chief of mine went through the same thing years before. He saw me during those times. I asked him if he thought I had a problem. He said, ‘You’ll know when you have a problem.’ Because nobody can tell you anything. They can take you away, put you in jail, lock you up and it doesn’t matter.

“(Going through treatment) has been a blessing to me. I had a good life before, raised four kids, was married – actually went through a divorce while I was in rehab – but I still had four great kids in my life and my family support. I can’t complain about that. It taught me a lot. But I love when people come up to me and tell me their story because we’re all the same.”

Butner comes into this weekend’s Fitzgerald USA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway fifth in the Pro Stock standings, 110 points behind boss and points leader Anderson.

In the first 10 races of 2018 Butner has one win (season-opening race at Pomona), one runner-up (Gainesville, Florida) and one third-place finish (Las Vegas 4-Wide Nationals).

Success in Pro Stock hasn’t changed Butner, who turned 44 on Sunday.

“I’m still the same guy at every race, you can ask any of the racers,” he said.

But there’s more to that, Butner said after being interviewed two weeks ago during the race weekend at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

“I just want people to know that when I look at that mirror every morning, I’m happy with that guy I see,” he said. “And I’m still able to turn this finger around and point back at me and have some blame every day. If I can do that every day, I’ll be on the right track.

“I can have a reason to drink right now, I qualified ninth (that evening at Route 66), I didn’t even qualify in the top half (of the 16-car field). That used to be a reason to drink, but now it’s not an option. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and I’m proud to tell my story about it.”

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Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”