Is Kimi Raikkonen NASCAR's next international superstar?
Is Kimi Raikkonen serious about pursuing a career in Sprint Cup? It sure sounds like he is, based upon his released statement before testing for Kyle Busch's Camping World Truck team Monday and Tuesday at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia. Raikkonen has a multi-race deal with Busch for this year, starting at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20.
"I am really excited to have the opportunity to start my venture into NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports," Raikkonen said. "Kyle is one of the best in NASCAR and being able to draw on his knowledge will be a valuable asset as I make my transition to a new form of racing."
NASCAR has seen an influx of ex-F1 drivers in recent years, starting with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2006. Scott Speed arrived in Trucks in 2008 and made it to Cup by the next season. Jacques Villeneuve has made cameo appearances since 2007, but hasn't been able find the sponsorship for a full-time job in any of the three touring series. Nelson Piquet Jr. is running full-time in Trucks this year and Narain Karthikeyan ran nine Truck races last year.
So, what's the big deal about Raikkonen? He was F1 world champion in 2007. The last F1 world champion to race full-time in an American-based series was Nigel Mansell in CART's Champ Cars in 1993 and 1994. Mansell arrived as the world champion and sent international interest in the series soaring. He took CART global, expanding the television market and ratings and establishing it as a viable alternative to F1 for race promoters. In the next few years, even after Mansell departed to return to F1, CART was signing lucrative deals in Brazil and Japan. With massive television numbers in the global marketplace, sponsorship poured into CART.
NASCAR understands the value of an international television following. The Mansell model and the addition of Montoya has verified it.
That said, NASCAR has an approval process to allow drivers on the track and it's fairly stringent. The committee doesn't announce it, but it turns drivers down on a fairly regular basis. It's a process that typically begins with a driver being approved for a short track in the Truck series and then advancing to bigger tracks and eventually to the Nationwide and Cup series.
The committee has approved Raikkonen for Charlotte, which is surprising. It's 1.5 miles, big, fast and dangerous. The committee places a high value on him being an F1 champion, and they should; he's one of the world's greatest race car drivers. But it's also a deviation from the usual thought process, made to accommodate Raikkonen's schedule in the World Rally Championship. Montoya, for example, began his NASCAR career at .75-mile Memphis. NASCAR understands that a driver of Raikkonen's magnitude could deliver massive worldwide ratings, offset the shrinking domestic numbers and keep global brand sponsors such as FedEx, Shell, Red Bull and many others happy.
Montoya has had a spectacular career: He was the Indy 500 champion in 2000; he picked up six victories in F1 from 2001 to 2006; and he experienced success in Cup that includes two wins and a Chase appearance in 2009. He has fans everywhere and says they've followed him to Cup.
"People are watching," Montoya said. "When I came over, people started paying attention to how I ran and I think a lot of people got hooked on it. I still receive e-mails from people from Formula 1 [that read] good luck in the race, great qualifying.
"It's like, 'Oh, you're paying attention.' That is surprising."
Montoya takes take all the credit for NASCAR's international appeal. "I think maybe if you would get the numbers of how many people internationally are watching these races, not only in America, but in Europe and Asia, I think you would shock yourself," he said. "I think they are pretty amazing."
With no disrespect to Montoya, Raikkonen's international following on television would surpass his. Raikkonen has 18 wins and a world championship with Ferrari.
Raikkonen's truck schedule hasn't been full determined. "I would say we're talking three to five [races]," Busch said at Martinsville last weekend. "Right now, it's only Charlotte. We'll see how he feels about Charlotte. He did express interest in running up to three or maybe up to five. We'll just see how it plays out. Right now, it's only one.
"It comes down to his schedule. It's just a matter of logistics for him to come over here. Obviously, he lives overseas and does most of his business overseas with the Rally stuff. It's a big deal for him to be able to fit in when he can. They picked Charlotte for whatever reason. They were adamant about Charlotte and running that race. I don't know if he feels that he wants a challenge right off the bat, but I think it will be good for him."
Raikkonen's contract is with the team and requires him to bring the funding.
"My contract is with Kimi himself," Busch said. "He's responsible. I do know that there's three sponsors involved. There is money backing him." (Perky Jerky announced Wednesday that it's one of them and also mentioned Tag Heuer, Oakley and Alpine Stars in it's press release.)
Bob Varsha, SPEED television's F1 anchor since 2004, found both the announcement and the decision by Raikkonen to test the waters in NASCAR out of character.
"My initial reaction was total shock and I'm still trying to get my arms around the fact that Kimi, who is famously self-absorbed when it comes to other forms of racing around the world, would suddenly put his signature to quotes that gushed endlessly about the spirit of American racing and that NASCAR looks like fun," Varsha said. "It's not like Kimi at all, who is one of the most taciturn individuals I've ever come across, certainly in motor sports.
"Unless Kimi just thinks he's going to come over here and be Kimi and not talk to anyone ... in which case I think the whole thing probably will come to a bad end. But it's very early days here, so who knows? Maybe Kimi will fall in love with the idea of oval-track racing and NASCAR and become the greatest un-American-born star in the history of the sport. I'm not trying to poison the waters for Kimi. He may do very well, but I just don't know where the interest is coming from."
Raikkonen's test at Gresham was closed to the media and public, and a request for an interview from SI.com was turned down. Raikkonen has left questions unanswered. Still, based upon the fact that he's going to race this year, Raikkonen appears serious in his pursuit of a career in NASCAR, and you know he's not going to settle for being in Trucks for very long. You can be sure that NASCAR's France family is his biggest fan.