Friday, March 10, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Gold and purple pompoms fluttered while Durango High School cheerleaders flanked the inflatable tunnel where a racing legend and famous school alumnus would emerge Thursday afternoon.
With a loud roar, hundreds of students and staff welcomed NASCAR driver Kurt Busch in the school’s gym for a pep rally commemorating his donation to the school of a replica hood of his 2004 Nextel Cup Series championship season car.
Kurt Busch and his brother Kyle are racing Sunday afternoon at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event.
An exuberant Busch, who graduated from Durango in 1996, emerged from the tunnel with arms raised amid his jubilant homecoming.
“It was an amazing experience to see all the students pile in, the support and the school’s spirit at an all-time high. It really brought me back to the days being here,” he would later say.
It’s those days that Busch, who proudly wore a Durango T-shirt underneath his blazer, harkened as he spoke into a microphone, pacing near the center of the basketball court. He stressed the impact of educators on his life and how focus is key in turning goals into reality.
He fielded questions from a handful of students, such as, "What was your best Durango memory?" — to which he answered "all of my teachers, who inspired me to be a good student." He gave a shout-out to his mother who worked at Durango when he was a student.
A choir, the school’s band and a student color guard were on hand for the assembly, which had high-octane moments, especially when students were summoned to play race-oriented games for a chance to win tickets for Sunday’s race. And Busch even participated in one of them — a tricycle race with three students.
He then presented a $5,000 check to the school's athletic department.
At the end of the assembly, dozens of students surrounded Busch seeking autographs — on shirts, shoes, hats and even iPhones — and selfies, for which the driver complied with a smile.
The students were not only left with photographic memories of Busch's visit, the black Ford hood he donated to the school that now hangs next to the scoreboard has a handwritten message: “I loved racing a trailblazer,” alluding to the school’s mascot.
After the assembly, Busch fielded questions from reporters and touched up on the growth the Las Vegas Valley has seen when it comes to professional sports and athletes.
Busch, who won the iconic Daytona 500 a couple of weeks ago, spoke about what it would mean to flash first through the checkered flag on Sunday: "The emotions of winning Daytona could easily be rivaled by winning in my hometown track here in Las Vegas 400. I'm really excited about it and the way that things have been rolling strong for our 41 team right now, I don't see why we can't win it."