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When Wisconsin guard Ben Brust was growing up in suburban Illinois, he admits he had the same distaste for NASCAR that most of his Badgers teammates do now.
"Anytime I saw it on ESPN, I used to flip the channel right away," Brust said. "I didn't like it at all."
Brust's passion for stock car racing has grown from non-existant to nonstop the past few years after his brother-in-law persuaded him to give the sport a chance. Not only does Brust seldom miss a Sprint Cup or Nationwide race during the basketball offseason, he also attends a couple of race weekends a year.
On Saturday, Brust received an opportunity few NASCAR fans ever receive when Richard Childress Racing driver Brendan Gaughan invited him to serve as one of his spotters during the Nationwide Series race in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Gaughan finished in a respectable 11th place with Brust stationed in "Canada Corner," the first of two right-hand turns proceeding the 14-turn road course's frontstretch.
"It was a really good experience," Brust said. "I watch all the time and I listen on the radio scanners, but it's obviously much different when you're the person they're depending on in the headset. We got through a couple wrecks and a couple spins that happened in front of him. Overall, it was a really cool experience and I really enjoyed it."
As the rare major college basketball player with interest in stock car racing, Brust has gotten the chance to get to know numerous NASCAR drivers and pit crew members either in person or via social media. He has bested Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick in H-O-R-S-E before, but Gaughan was the first driver to offer him the chance to trade his seat in the grandstands for a more important job.
ESPN basketball analyst Stephen Bardo suggested Brust introduce himself to Gaughan because the driver was a former walk-on basketball player at Georgetown under coach John Thompson Jr. They met at Chicagoland Speedway last year and again in Gaughan's hometown of Las Vegas this spring, developing enough of a rapport that Gaughan trusted Brust to be one of his spotters in his first Nationwide series event of the year.
It was Brust's job to inform Gaughan if any wrecked cars ahead of him were blocking the track or if he had enough room to clear another car while side-by-side in the turn trying to make a pass.
"I was a little surprise at his lack of hesitation," Brust said. "I think he'd said earlier that I'd been in situations where I faced pressure and had to make quick decisions. I think in talking to me a little bit, he realized I have good knowledge. He had confidence in me and that gave me confidence to be ready to go when the green flag dropped."
When Brust asked Gaughan for feedback on how he'd done as a spotter, Gaughan praised his work. Gaughan's only suggestion was for Brust to be a little less cautious, but the Wisconsin guard admitted he was fearful of being responsible for a wreck in his first day on the job.
If spotting for Gaughan was a challenge for Brust, it pales in comparison to the challenge of persuading his Wisconsin teammates to watch a NASCAR race with him.
As I do this interview, my roommates are laughing at me while they're making lunch," Brust said. "So I think that explains their level of interest."
Wisconsin players who intend to remain close with Brust might want to at least give NASCAR a chance. The rising senior said he'd consider making a career of his love of stock car racing in some capacity once his basketball playing days are over.
"Even in media or something," Brust said. "There have been a lot of people who have been really nice to me and have given me opportunities. They say if I need something in the future, to let them know. Right now I'm just trying to meet as many people as possible, and if something comes up later, I'm definitely going to keep my options open and not close any doors."