Racing to Live: An Interview with Chuck Rush

By Christopher M. Rzigalinski

In February 2017 NASCAR announced a new partnership with FOX and NBC to increase racing broadcast rights. The agreement ensures major network support of billions of dollars through the 2024 Monster Energy Cup Series. This initiative is not only a push to increase viewership with familiar demographics like the American South. It’s also a plan to develop fan bases across the United States. NASCAR and its cousin, IndyCar, are the most visible manifestations of a motor sports revolution that’s taken America by storm since the 1979 Daytona 500, considered by many to be the most important race in NASCAR history. But that narrative ignores the hidden figures who never achieve multi-million dollar paychecks, corporate sponsorship, or televised glory. They race for the love the sport. Viewers are lucky to get the chance to meet these heroes in Kevin Burroughs’ documentary Smash: Motorized Mayhem, which hits VOD platforms and iTunes today.

Smash, produced by XLrator Media in partnership with KeyLight Pictures and Rugged Entertainment, follows the hardest working men and women in racing as they prepare for one of the Orlando Speed World Dragway’s most popular events: the Crash-A-Rama school bus race. Yup, those yellow buses that once carted kids to and from school are retooled, painted up, and raced around a figure 8 track. The true excitement for fans is watching the buses smash into one another, until a single victor takes the flag. Burroughs adopts the perspective of a casual racing fan, unaware of bus racing’s popularity. He takes us along on the journey to learn about bus racing’s rise from novelty attraction to fan favorite. Along the way we meet the characters that make the circuit run.

The most inspiring of member of the Crash-A-Rama family is the indefatigable Chuck Rush, whom I interviewed this week. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to creative people in all walks of life that live for their art. But Chuck’s joy and passion jumped through the phone like a revelation. We talked about bus racing’s unique identity versus NASCAR, the fortune of NOT becoming the next Dale Earnhardt Sr., and what it means to find true happiness in life. Even though we only talked for fifteen minutes, I left the conversation feeling inspired. I hope you’ll feel that way too, after reading the transcription.

 

CR: Hey! How you doing, Christopher?

CMR: I’m good, Chuck. How are you?

CR: Well, you know, if I got any better, I’d have to sit on my hands to keep from waving at cars.

CMR: [laughs] That’s great. I’m gonna jump right into the questions. How does that suit you?

CR: Sure, man. I’m here for you.

CMR: Alright. I appreciate that. The first thing I want to talk about is — even though auto racing is such a huge sport in the United States, there are still a lot of areas [in the country] that might not be familiar with it. So, for those Cinephellas fans, why is bus racing in particular becoming so popular in Florida?

CR: The great thing about what we do at Crash-A-Rama [held at the Orlando Speed World Dragway], where the documentary was filmed, is that you don’t have to be a race fan. You don’t have to be a typical NASCAR fan or an Indy (Indianapolis 500) fan. You just have to like seeing shit get destroyed.

CR and CMR: [laughs]

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CR: Basically that’s what we do. Think about it, even people that go to NASCAR or Indy, secretly we all want to see the wrecks. That’s really what we go for. At Crash-A-Rama, bus racing or trailer racing or any of our events, it’s all about wrecks. So I don’t think you’re limited to a particular audience. We’ve found that the majority of our fans that go to these live events never go to a normal stock car race. It’s just the idea of seeing 15,000 pound school buses wrecking and hitting each other that everybody wants to see.

CMR: It’s interesting because the races have a sort of catharsis, a release behind them, from the spectator point of view.

CR: Like I said, you don’t have to be a NASCAR fan. You just have to be a carnage fan. It’s legalized road rage. Everybody that’s driven on the interstate at one time or another there’s always been somebody that made you say, “Oh, man. I wish I could just drive him into the wall.” Well, at our shows the fans get to see people do that. I think that’s a lot of the appeal of it.

CMR: I was reading an article — you might have seen this article — in the Chicago Tribune in which [director of Smash] Kevin Burroughs is interviewed. In it he talks a lot about how he went to school in Florida but never really knew about this culture of racing until later. Having taken part in this sport for so long, what was your reaction when Burroughs came to you about making the documentary?

CR: To be completely honest with you, it was cool — I will say that — but we had had so many people approach us in the past saying, “Oh this would be a cool topic [for a film]. This could be fun.” But they never followed through. So our initial response was, “Yeah, sure. Whatever.” But then once we saw how much interest and how much heart he was putting behind the film, and the fact that he was truly interested in what we were doing and not just another guy trying to make a buck off of filming it, it became so much more fun to have him around. You could see he wasn’t just having fun filming it, he was having fun being around it. Once we got that connection, it was a whole different ballgame. Kevin’s a great guy.

CMR: Do you remember a specific moment where you felt that he earned your trust?

CR: Yeah. When I found out that he was taking money out of his own pocket to fund this thing without ever knowing if it would become anything, that he believed so much in it, right then Don [Nerone, event organizer] and I talked to each other and we’re like, “You know, if a guy’s willing to do that, then he’s probably a real good guy.”

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Director and Cinematographer Kevin Burroughs

CMR: And I think you can really see —

CR: That’s when we really began to trust Kevin.

CMR: I think you can really see his sincerity in the form of the film. It has a very joyous quality, not only in the presentation of the races, but also in the way it’s structured.

Chuck is distracted by some background noise.

CR: I’m sorry. There was some background noise there….You can see the love Kevin put into it. I think that’s where you were going: the heart and the soul and the amount of hours he put in. And then seeing his effort in actually getting the film out there. We actually did the world premiere in Hollywood. It was fun to be a part of that.

CMR: In that same Chicago Tribune article, there was one part that kind of left me scratching my head. An anonymous source is discussing your career and says, “he would have been a Dale Earnhardt, except he wasn’t found at the right time and didn’t have any money.” After seeing the film and seeing your passion, that seemed like an oversimplification. I wanted to give you a chance to express any thoughts you had on that quote.

CR: That person that made that quote was a very, very dear friend of mine. He was involved in motor sports his entire life. Still is. He’s probably reaching up around 80 now but still is. I’d never thought of myself in that way. I’m not going to say I didn’t do it for the glory because that’s what made me race buses, do the crazy stuff, so I could hear the crowd cheer. But when I heard that quote, it was a huge compliment because this guy knew [NASCAR legend] Dale Earnhardt personally. And for him to compare me to Dale was a huge ego boost and a huge compliment. And he’s probably right. I look back now that I’m older and go, “Man. I would have been [on the NASCAR circuit] if I would have gotten the right break at the right time.” So it was a huge compliment, and I still look back on that. When I heard that quote, I thought it was pretty cool.

CMR: For people familiar with NASCAR, it also then puts into perspective your career. I got chills.

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CR: I felt the same way. I felt the hair stand up on my arms. But, you know, to tell you the truth, the way I went through my career and where it has gotten me today — my wife and I now actually own Crash-A-Rama — I look back, and I don’t think I’d change much. Had I went into NASCAR, I would’ve been just another guy. But going the path that I took — I always look at it like this: If I’d gone into NASCAR, I would’ve been just another small fish in a big pond. But the way I went with my career, it was — and it’s hard to say without sounding arrogant — the way I went with my career, the way it played out and is still playing out, I’m like a whale in a pond, instead of a fish in the ocean.

CMR: You express that idea in the film by calling yourself an “educated redneck.”

CR: [laughs]

CMR: I thought that was great because you challenged the negative connotations that have become associated with the term redneck. Can you go more into what you mean by “educated redneck” and how it relates to your career?

CR: Unfortunately, redneck seems to be a derogatory term. It’s country bumpkin with no teeth and he’s always rigging stuff with duct tape. But there are also a lot of other guys like myself that are proud to be a redneck. To me, it’s not a derogatory term. It’s a way of saying that no matter what the challenge is, one way or another I’m gonna find a way to get it done, even if it’s not the most sophisticated way. I’m always gonna succeed. When I said that, I meant that, “Yeah, I might be a redneck. I might race school buses. And I might own a tow truck. And I might run demolition derbies. But I’m not stupid. I’m intelligent. I’m educated.”

CMR: Absolutely. I was impressed by the way that you have your hand in every aspect of the racing process, [from performing auto mechanic duties, to helping organize the events, to actually racing].

CR: That’s a huge compliment, and I appreciate that. It’s gone way deeper than that now. Like I said, my wife and I actually bought the company two years ago. I’ve had to give up the steering wheel, but I still do some big races. Basically I’ve given up the steering wheel and taken over as promoter. I do my own advertising. I write our own radio and TV ads. I do all the live interviews. I go into the radio stations, the TV stations and promote it. I’m the announcer for the show. Plus, I’m the race director. So, yeah, I had my hands in it a lot a couple years ago. But it seems like the longer it goes, the more I get involved. And that falls back to the Dale Earnhardt thing. Had my career not taken the path it did, I probably wouldn’t feel as good about my success as I do today.

CMR: You’ve come up through the ranks, and now you’re —

CR: I did it the hard way.

CMR: Exactly.

CR: You know, now all it takes to get into NASCAR is a daddy with $5 million. I did it the hard way. While I haven’t had as much success, I’m prouder of the success I’ve had.

CMR: Now that you’re getting into more of the business side of the sport, do you foresee a time when you might be able to acquire the financial support to raise bus racing to the level of NASCAR?

CR: I don’t ever foresee it getting accepted to that point, just because of the stigma “redneck sports” carry. Obviously we have grown and we do very well. I’ll do anywhere between six to ten shows throughout the country. We do Columbus, Ohio. We do Buffalo, New York. We do Erie, Pennsylvania. We do a track in Virginia. And we’re putting 7,000 to 7,500 people in those venues now. That’s huge. That would have never been — like, if you asked somebody five years ago if that ever would have happened, they would have looked at you and laughed. But as far as being able to elevate it to the level of NASCAR, I don’t think so. Even just because of the track size. The reason ours works is because it’s small tracks. The crowd’s right up on top of the track, and they feel a part of the event. And, you know, you would never get the financial backing or the sponsors, if only because of that stigma surrounding “redneck sports.”

CMR: It’s a difficult business model to sell.

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CR: But yet, once people have been to an event, they gain a new appreciation. Especially in Erie and Buffalo, where our shows are on Saturday, by Thursday night I’ve got fifty to seventy-five campers tailgating in the parking lot. Come Friday night or Saturday morning, I got two hundred of them. I feel like we’re doing very well and obviously fans are showing it. But the corporate dollars would never get behind it. And I’m okay with that.

CMR: That idea of the track being a little bit smaller and in a figure 8 shape, as opposed to the traditional oval, makes for a more intimate experience.

CR: Correct. And in order for corporate dollars to get involved, you’ve got to be able to put 70,000 people in the seats each time. From that perspective, I could never see it happening. With that said, however, we have gotten very big and bigger than I would have ever thought. Sometimes, though, bigger isn’t better.

CMR: Do you have any plans for expansion right now? And what’s next for the circuit in general?

CR: Our goal is to get about fourteen to sixteen shows a year. And we are moving in that direction. We are getting some corporate sponsorship. Not in the millions of dollars, but there are a couple of deals I’m working on that could potentially go in the one hundred thousand-a-year bracket, which is huge. And the more tracks we get, the better. I think the one problem we have is that local track promoters see what we do and they think, “Oh, that’s not hard. I can do that.” So they go out and they try to do it themselves. They don’t see all the little details and the nuts and bolts. They just see the finished product and go, “Anybody can do that.” And they screw it up. And they kill it. So then [it hurts us because we] can never go there and do it because you advertise and people go, “I already went to see that and it was terrible.” But our company is looking at doubling our number of shows this year. We’ll just see how it goes. Especially if this documentary takes off like we expect it to, it will help us expand.

CMR: My aunt and uncle live in a small western Pennsylvania town named Claysburg, not too far from Erie, and I could definitely see bus racing taking off there. We don’t often realize that the culture associated with the redneck stereotype extends north and west of the American South. And I really like that you’re challenging us to consider that.

CR: Absolutely. We’ve been doing Lake Erie Speedway, two shows a year, for about eight years now. If your family’s close to there, I guarantee they’ve heard my advertisements for Crash-A-Rama. But now I think we’re looking to go even farther north than that into Canada.

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At this point in the conversation Chuck and I were informed by the press agent that we only had about a minute left to talk.

CMR: Cool. We’ll just wrap up, then. Since racing has played such a big role in your life — in your personal life, your professional driving life, and now in your business life — I was curious where you think your life would be now, if you never discovered racing.

CR: I’m not really sure where I would be. And I’m not really sure I want to know.

CR and CMR: [laughs]

CR: But I know I’m happy where I’m at.

CMR: That’s really inspiring. You can’t take happiness for granted, right?

CR: It’s been a fun ride, and hopefully I’m around a few more years to ride it some more.

CMR: Thanks for taking some time to talk today, Chuck. And best of luck to you guys with the documentary and with building your brand.

CR: I appreciate it. Thank you for taking your time.

CMR: Have a great day.

CR: You too.

I give Smash: Motorized Mayhem 5 out of 5 hairpieces. It showcases all that’s beautiful about the documentary form by implementing genuine love for its subject matter and focusing on character development throughout the film. Just as Chuck says in the interview, viewers don’t need to be racing fans to enjoy the film. No matter what you’re passionate about, you’ll identify with the drivers in Smash.

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