By Jerry Bonkowski
This Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen NASCAR Cup race at Watkins Glen International could very well be more than just another road course race.
It could be the start of a new source of talent availability for stock car racing – and a unique source at that.
2007 Formula One champ Kimi Raikkonen will be making a one-off start for Trackhouse Racing in the race. There are expected to be more eyes than usual on the event, particularly overseas, as F1 is in the midst of its annual month-long summer hiatus.
And because Kimi has a number of friends in the F1 paddock, he already has a built-in cheering base.
But it’s also not just because of Kimi’s participation alone. Another F1 great, Daniel Ricciardo, is playing out the end of his current contract and rumors are increasingly strong that he may be looking for a new ride in America next season – and it’s not in IndyCar, as one might think, but rather in NASCAR Cup!
And Trackhouse Racing is reportedly the team Ricciardo is considering, in part because of Raikkonen’s involvement with it, driving the No. 91 Recogni/iLOQ Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. It’s part of a plan by Trackhouse Racing primary co-owner Justin Marks, who wants to attract more international stars and indoctrinate them into NASCAR-style racing.
This could be the start of even more F1 drivers looking to come over to NASCAR in the coming years.
Think about it: F1 is limited to 20 cars per season, which means, obviously, that there are only 20 opportunities for drivers. And not everyone can be a Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton.
If you extrapolate that a little more and look at the other major global open-wheel series, IndyCar, there are about 26 or 27 regular rides there. And we’ve seen several current drivers who’ve gone from F1 to IndyCar, including Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean, 2022 Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and others.
With several current IndyCar drivers likely to retire in the next 2-5 years (as well as some current IndyCar drivers potentially moving to F1), that will further open up a number of seats, albeit several of those will likely be filled by drivers in the current IndyLights developmental series.
Still, the opportunity exists for at least a few IndyCar seats opening up for F1 drivers to fill.
But then we have NASCAR.
There are 36 cars with team charters – nearly double the number of cars in F1 – and some races can have as many as 40 drivers and cars in them, including the season-opening and largest race of the season, the Daytona 500.
With several Cup drivers looking at retirement in the next few seasons, including Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and others, perhaps the best opportunity for former F1 drivers who are looking to continue their for high-paying careers in competitive rides are in the NASCAR Cup Series!
Now, admittedly, we’ve seen some former F1 drivers who’ve come to NASCAR and have not had the kind of success they had hoped for. Jacques Villeneuve is right at the top of the list. He came over to NASCAR with a great deal of promotion and promise, only to essentially flame out.
He’s kind of kicked around since then for a few one-offs, but he never had anywhere near the success in NASCAR that he hoped for or that he had in F1.
Sure, Juan Pablo Montoya had a bit more success in NASCAR Cup, but nowhere near the success he had in F1, or even in CART (the predecessor to IndyCar).
But we’re in a different time and era now. We’re at a point now that while NASCAR still has a good abundance of drivers who can move up from the Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series to the Cup Series in the next several years.
But we’re also at a point where NASCAR would like to increase its global reach and what better way to do that than to bring in drivers who’ve made names for themselves in a truly international series like Formula One. There’s name recognition, talent and ability recognition and a built in fan base already there internationally – with an additional fan base to be built in the U.S.
Now, admittedly, Kimi Raikkonen is not going to set NASCAR on fire just because he’s going to race at Watkins Glen on Sunday. He’s already had two NASCAR races to date under his belt – a 15th-place Truck Series finish in 2011 and 27th-place Xfinity Series finish also in 2011.
But the 42-year-old Raikkonen could very well be laying the groundwork for a guy like Ricciardo who, even though he’s 33, still has maybe another 5-6 good years left in him if he races in NASCAR.
And let’s face it, while NASCAR’s 36-race schedule can be exhausting at times, F1’s own 23-race schedule (to be 25 races next year) is a GLOBAL series, from Australia to Austin, from Montreal to Mexico City, from Azerbaijan to Singapore, Japan to Brazil. Constant travel, constant flights, hotel room after hotel room after hotel room.
That makes NASCAR look like a much more sedate and easier to handle series, doesn’t it?
Ricciardo is reportedly also going to be in attendance in the Trackhouse pits Sunday, watching, observing, taking mental notes and, who knows, maybe just ready to sign a contract.
And if Ricciardo is the first to come to NASCAR, don’t be surprised if he’s not the last. There are already rumors that a few other drivers on B-tier F1 teams – for the non-F1 fans, that’s the less-successful teams – who may be looking for new rides that they may not necessarily find with other F1 teams, so why not look potentially at NASCAR?
It makes you think, doesn’t it?
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski