For two forms of motorsport that could hardly be more different, it’s surprising how often Formula One and NASCAR have intersected over the past decade.
It’s ten years since Juan Pablo Montoya defect from McLaren to Chip Ginassi. Five years ago Lewis Hamilton and Tony Stewart swapped seats at Watkins Glen in 2011, and former world champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jacques Villeneuve having also sampled NASCAR’s lower divisions.
Romain Grosjean could be the next to follow them as one of NASCAR’s biggest players, Gene Haas, is his F1 team boss too. Excitingly, Grosjean has been talking about the possibility of entering one of NASCAR’s road course races.
So when F1 Fanatic was offered a unique chance to wrestle a bona fide Sprint Cup car around an oval, it was a perfect opportunity to learn more about a sport that still remains alien to many motorsport fans outside the States.
“There ain’t no SAFER barrier on this track…”
As a casual follower of North America’s most popular motorsport for many years, I already have a pretty strong admiration of these 800bhp machines and their drivers. I’m also under no illusion that these cars are by any means easy to drive at any considerable speed.
But arriving at Rockingham Motor Speedway in Corby and seeing the circuit’s shallow-banked corners for the first time, it’s hard not to wonder if all those hours spent practising on ‘NASCAR Racing 2003’ for the PC are going to be of any use at all.
Walking into an appropriately star-spangled garage, I introduce myself to the enthusiastic crew of American Race Car Experience (ARCX), the passionate team who offer wannabe Jimmie Johnsons like myself a genuine chance to run wide-open around the UK’s only full scale oval.
It quickly dawns that these are no pretenders. These are real ex-NASCAR guys with real racing experience running real Sprint Cup cars made by race-winning NASCAR teams.
Stepping outside onto the pitlane, the team have an entire fleet of stunning stock cars waiting to be let loose around the speedway. Joey Logano’s #22 Ford heads the makeshift grid, with Danica Patrick’s #7 Chevrolet Impala particularly standing out with its day-glo green GoDaddy livery. Carl Edward’s #99 Ford and Matt Kenseth’s #20 Toyota Camry are just some of the other models on display.
I take some time to talk with some of the ARCX crew, including an impressively-moustached gentleman from north Wisconsin who tells me about how he grew up illegally drag racing his ‘64 Impala with his friends for fun. It reflects on an attitude that is still so prevalent in modern Sprint Cup racing today – a pure and simple love of just racing cars fast.
Soon it’s time for the drivers’ meeting. Fifteen or so nervous participants take their seats in the garage for a formal welcoming from ARCX boss Blair DuPree.
“Speed is not the aim for today,” booms Mr DuPree in a commanding voice. “What we’re here to do is give you an authentic idea of what it’s like to drive one of these race cars. Speed is just a by-product of that.”
In an impressively thorough 40-minute briefing, DuPree covers every major detail; from simply how to get going in these cars to how to tackle each of Rockingham’s four distinct turns, where to lift, when and when not to pass other drivers, how to evacuate the car in a fire – even the correct technique for spinning.
“If you feel the car getting too loose, pull left and let it spin to the inside apron – don’t try to save it,” he explains. “Unless you really wanna know what it’s like hitting these walls – and there ain’t no SAFER barrier on this track.”
As the meeting concludes and ARCX’s team of five professional drivers test out the track conditions one last time before us novices take over, we’re all treated to a fittingly American buffet lunch laid on by the crew. Not wanting to run the risk of feeling ill out on track, I decide it’s best to limit myself to only three hot dogs, two hamburgers, one serving of french fries and a bottle of Diet Coke.
Behind the wheel
With the cars now back on pit road and myself now fully fuelled, it’s time to see what it’s like to drive one of these beasts. As I am effectively representing the entire F1 Fanatic community, it’s hard not to feel at least a little pressure to impress the guys here. Or at least to not wreck.
I step into a race suit (size medium), grab a helmet (also medium) and head on over to the car I’ll be driving solo around the speedway – Brendan Gaughan’s #62 Chevrolet. While technically an old Nationwide (now XFinity) Series car, the engine that the ARCX guys have installed under the hood is the same as all the other Sprint Cup cars out here today.
Immediately, there’s a problem. With no doors on Sprint Cup cars, the only way in and out is through the driver-side window. You have to awkwardly step into the seat through the window, before winding the rest of your body through. I try to enter the car smoothly, but bang my head against the car’s steel frame at least twice as I shuffle into the cockpit.
As the crew begin to strap me in to the five-point safety harness, I look around a NASCAR’s interior for the first time. It’s only then that you realise just how basic it all feels when you’re behind the wheel.
There’s no MOTEC display to feed you lap times and data. No LEDs to help you maximise gearshifts and no buttons or dials to help adjust settings on the fly. There’s no speedometer either. Just a simple analogue rev-gauge.
Even the wheel itself is just that. A large, black, three-spoked wheel. You pull a metal clasp behind it, slide it over the steering column and let go of the clasp, activating the locking mechanism. Unsurprisingly, the first thing I’m asked to do once I’m fully strapped in is to pull the wheel a couple of times to ensure it’s fully secured in place.
Flick the ‘ignition’ switch. Flick the ‘engine on’ switch aside it and the car roars into life. Just as I’m sitting there, starting to regret all those hot dogs, a strange voice suddenly fills my ear.
“Car number 62, stick your hand out of the window if you can hear me.”
Yes, just like the professionals, I have my own spotter guiding me through my time on track. I hold my left hand out of the window and wave randomly, hoping the mystery voice can see somehow see me.
“Okay car 62,” the voice continues. “What you’re gonna do now is shift into first and then gently squeeze that throttle.”
With the greatest respect for all the horsepower I now have at the command of my right foot, I press down on the pedal with a feather touch until I feel the 1,400kg car start to ease away.
We were all warned that our biceps would get a workout in these cars and it’s proven immediately from the amount of force needed to steer the car out from the wall and onto the pitlane. I increase the speed tentatively, shifting gradually up the four gears until the car is in fourth – top gear.
I follow the curved pit entry around at a speed that feels fast but probably isn’t. “Okay, merge carefully up to the middle of the track,” comes the instruction.
The ARCX team have laid out two strips of fluorescent tape, marking the boundaries of the groove they want us all to follow. Orange safety cones on the retaining wall act as reference points for when to lift before the entry to each of Rockingham’s four turns.
My out-lap is done at a pedestrian pace. My spotter talks me through turns two and three while I try to hold the wheel as steady as I can around the banking, until I round the final turn and line up the car down the pit straight.
“Okay, you can give it some throttle now,” comes the instruction.
I press the pedal down hard and the engine roars in delight as we cross the timing line. It only lasts a few seconds before my self-preservation instincts kick-in and I roll off the throttle and cruise down the track and around turn one.
What should be a simple matter of steering left around four relatively gentle turns soon becomes one of the most demanding exercises of my concentration for a long time. There may be no gear changes to do, no braking necessary and no need to check the single rearview mirror, but driving this car is entirely a battle of willpower.
NASCARs are beyond comfortable at high speed. I’m flat down the straights, but in the turns, I’m not even close. By the time my spotter instructs me to “roll off to half throttle” as I approach the turns, I’ve already been fully off the gas for a good three seconds.
I’m sure I’m going fast enough to break the national speed limit, but I can tell that I’m not even close to reaching the car’s limit around the turns. And with this car being one of last season’s cars, I’m even getting the advantage of the extra downforce that was taken away from the current generation of Sprint Cup cars at the request of the drivers themselves.
Everything feels so smooth. For such a heavy race car, it glides around the track. With weight naturally biased to the left, I’m having to hold the wheel right down the straights to offset the car’s desire to pull to the inside.
Just as I’m starting to get more used to the car and hitting my marks – to use the NASCAR expression – my spotter suddenly warns “car 22 coming up high, stay left.” I hold the inside line down the straight as the yellow Penske Ford driven by one of ARCX’s professionals on a demonstration lap flies by me, inches away from the wall before rounding turn two on the outside line.
It was perhaps at that moment that I truly realised how utterly incredible NASCAR racing is. As fun and as fast a time I was having dawdling around the track in the middle groove, I was having a hard enough time managing that, let alone having to consider what it would be like racing 40 others at much higher speeds with cars passing either side of me for 200 laps.
With the number 22 car already in the distance, I’m determined to make my last laps count. I hit the rev limiter along the straights, which makes me strangely proud, but I just cannot find the bravery to lift any later than I already am.
“Okay 62,” says my spotter. “This is your last lap. Go for it.”
I try to swallow my fear along the pit straight and wait until I’m almost level with the cone (meaning at least 100 metres before) before lifting off to about a quarter-throttle and let the car run through the first corner between the markers. It’s still no problem for this impressive machine, but I’ve still gone too fast for my own comfort and grimace in my helmet as I swing around the turn.
I’m directed into the pits by my spotter soon after and my eight laps behind the wheel of a genuine NASCAR are over. ARCX clients will get 12 laps to play with, as well as a chance to ride shotgun with one of their talented professional drivers to show you how it’s really done.
I trundle back to the pit box. “How was it?,” one of the crew asks as they help to release me from the harness.
“Bloody hell, that was fast…,” I reply, suddenly realising I don’t need to be gripping the wheel so tightly any more.
It’s been an eye-opening experience that has only reaffirmed my respect not just for NASCAR as a sport, but the very concept of oval racing itself.
While I didn’t lean on the car in the turns, real NASCAR drivers are pushing the limits of grip every corner of every lap for 300 to 500 miles a race, balancing a car that can swing from tight to loose over the course of a single stint. With average lap speeds regularly higher than any speed I reached in the car, the skill required to race side-by-side for three hours every weekend is nothing short of incredible to me.
Let’s hope that Grosjean really does get the chance to become the next F1 driver to try their hand at stock car racing. As with Nico Hulkenberg’s incredible victory at Le Mans last year, a guest appearance by a Haas F1 driver for their NASCAR affiliate would be a fantastic story that would raise the profile of both series.
As for me, I don’t expect Grosjean to find the transition from Formula One to stock car easy at all. But what I know for sure, is that he’ll be a damn sight better at it than me.
Thanks to Tony Darby for the photography
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