Remember when NASCAR was the province of “good ol’ boys,” all about rum runners, stock cars (real ones), backwoods roads and non-roads that drivers knew like the palms of their hands? Maybe 75 years ago, when NASCAR began its competitions on the beaches of northern Florida, those truths were evident, but today’s NASCAR is way different. The final icon of those days is still among us but pretty much retired, but for the use of his name, King Richard Petty.
Today’s NASCAR is all corporate, but it still retains its all-American feel with race cars that look similar to what fans might find in a dealership: Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Mustangs, Toyota Camrys. Never mind they’ve got no doors, that drivers need to climb in the windows, that competition is strictly observed by series officials and that every moment is choreographed.
The stars of today’s NASCAR are American, for sure, but they’re being invaded by racers from around the world who are just as proficient as the rum runners and “hooch” purveyors of yore. NASCAR is welcoming international racers, thanks to Trackhouse Racing’s Justin Marks, Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan of 23XI Racing, Rick Ware Racing with Stewart Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
Today NASCAR still races predominantly on oval tracks, but road course races have increased, forcing oval specialists to learn new tricks and allowing road course experts to find their way into the Cup Series. NASCAR does have a European division, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series that has successfully integrated the former Cup Series cars into continental competition and made fans on the European continent much more familiar and attuned to Cup Series competition.
Now the gladiators of Formula One, World Endurance Championship and Australian Supercars are making inroads in this truly American sport.
The biggest deal thus far in that incursion is Trackhouse Racing’s PROJECT 91 with Shane van Gisbergen’s tutorial on street-course racing during the Grant Park 220 last month. That was NASCAR’s first street-course race in its 75 years and the three-time Supercars champ schooled NASCAR’s regular season stars, coming from midfield to earn a win in the final throes of a three-stage race. His victory was one of the most watched Cup Series races of the past decade and likely brought more attention to Supercars since, well, Marcos Ambrose came to the US from Australia in 2006.
Jim France’s excursion to France this June with the Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that was adapted to be usable during the centenary celebration of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a huge success, both for the Hendrick Racing team of Jimmie Johnson, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller and for NASCAR itself. The team won the pit stop contest despite using a manual jack (!) and completed the race without being last on the track, one of the most important goals for the team.
Next month, NASCAR returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, using the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course that incorporates only a small portion of the vaunted 2.5-mile oval track that initially housed the Brickyard 400 oval race. The Cup Series is sharing the bill with its Xfinity Series and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES that utilizes the oval track each May for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, a contest that has seen many foreign drivers earn victory and many others try unsuccessfully.
After an action-packed 2022 event that saw Tyler Reddick take the checkered flags, NASCAR’s Cup Series will welcome four international stars when it returns to The Brickyard’s road course for a third time. In addition to van Gisbergen’s second Cup Series race in a scant three months, it was earlier announced that Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who last raced on Indy’s road course in 2007 while still in F1, will drive the No. 15 Mobil 1-sponsored Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing, with marketing and promotional support provided by Stewart Haas Racing, co-owned by two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart, currently driving a Top Alcohol Dragster in NHRA and competing in the SRX Experience.
Button’s Verizon 200 entry marks his third race in NASCAR’s Cup Series this year, in addition to driving the Garage 56 Camaro ZL1 in Le Mans and at July’s Goodwood Festival of Speed (in the rain). He’s joined by former F1 driver and current standout on Toyota Gazoo Racing’s World Endurance Championship (WEC) team, Kamui Kobayashi. The principal of his WEC team, as well as driver on the No. 7 Hypercar, Kobayashi is making his NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing, co-owned by racer Denny Hamlin and multi-sport star Michael Jordan. Kobayashi will be driving a Toyota Camry GR in the road-course race. He is the first Japanese-born driver to compete in NASCAR’s Cup Series; countryman Takuma Sato has won the Indianapolis 500 twice.
Just a few days ago, Richard Childress Racing made it known they’re campaigning Brodie Kostecki in the Verizon 200. Kostecki is currently second in the Supercars Championship in Australia; he’ll be driving a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in his first NASCAR race. See https://www.racingjunk.com/news/brodie-kostecki-latest-australian-supercars-racer-to-make-nascar-debut/.
All of these drivers would do well to mind Kimi Raikkonen, who has driven the PROJECT 91 Trackhouse Racing Camaro twice since the program began: “It was just about survival out there,” the Finn said of his NASCAR experience. The Verizon 200 is set for August 13th; NASCAR’s Xfinity Series will share the track on August 12th with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.