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Lewis Hamilton in NASCAR! Well, for a day

15 June 2011

Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of the NASCAR "Car of Tomorrow" stock cars on Tuesday when he took Tony Stewart's #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet around the Watkins Glen International road course as part of a car swap exhibition event.

In return, Tony Stewart managed to squeeze into the rather more cramped cockpit of a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 for a few circuits of his own, and said that he enjoyed not only the F1 experience but also the opportunity to test out parts of The Glen that NASCAR races don't normally reach on their visits.

"It's not the same. They're completely different," said Hamilton when asked to compare the F1 and NASCAR vehicles. "The weight - I was trying to calculate that before, because you do everything in pounds here, we do it in kilos. I think I measured it, it's three times the weight of a F1 car. It actually doesn't feel that heavy. I think the brakes were surprisingly very good.

"But the driving skills that you learn, the braking into corners, throttle shifting, that's all very, very similar. That's why I think it was easier to pick it up quicker than perhaps I would. I think it's the same for Tony. He went straight out there and picked it up. It was no problem for him. I could definitely see myself having some fun with it a little bit more!"

Hamilton said that he'd had a very good impression of the NASCAR stock car. "I was really, really surprised. I was thinking this could be rolling quite a lot. I didn't know how stiff it was going to be," he said. "I tell you what, it handles really well. It's absolutely fantastic. The shifting and the engine, the way it's pulling through the RPM was fantastic."

Stewart described piloting the F1 car as "truly an experience of a lifetime" and said: "It's just amazing what the capabilities of the car are. I told the guys on pit road out there that it's probably going to make my crew chief a little more stressed during the weekends because I'm going to want [the #14] to handle like that all the time!

"The first thing I'd have to do is lose about 25 pounds right off the bat. I would actually have to go and work out in a gym again!" he quipped.

Stewart admitted that he had trouble just getting underway at the start. "The funny part is I couldn't even get it up high enough in the revs to get it to pull away in first gear. It goes into a default stall mode. [But] once we got rolling, it was unbelievable. The good thing is you have somebody like Lewis that can sit there and guide you through it."

The wet track conditions did mean that Stewart was far from finding the limits of the F1 car. "I never got to full potential of what the car was capable of doing in a braking zone," he said, admitting that "You may back it off a little bit just to enjoy the experience more.

"I don't want to wreck any race car, much less somebody else's car," Stewart said. "As a competitor you want to go out and find the limit, but at the same time, you realize that, if you make a mistake, the penalty for that mistake is probably going to be pretty large here.

"It's just amazing how far you can charge the corner. It's easy to see why it's hard for these guys to overtake because it's not a long distance from the time you get off the throttle on the brakes to where you're changing directions. It gives you a much greater appreciation for how hard it is for these guys to overtake each other, what that car's actually capable of."

Hamilton seemed to be having a lot more fun in the stock car. "I just feel like a kid today," he said. "Whilst driving a F1 car is very fun, the competitive side of it is so serious." But by the time he'd finished his laps in a stock car, Hamilton was on the radio to declare "That was fun, man!" and to try out some celebratory burnouts - while his McLaren support crew looked on with concern in case he managed to damage the #14 in the process.

Not that Tony Stewart, the car and team-owner of the #14, was worried. "The part I was worried about he was done by then," he said. "The good thing is, when you see somebody doing a burnout like that, you know they're having a good time. That was kind of the icing on the cake."

The event was held at the New York state road course that hosted the US Grand Prix for 20 years until 1980. "It was definitely good that I got to go out in the F1 car just to kind of get an idea of where the track went," said Hamilton. "The track is absolutely fantastic. It feels like a real classic. It just feels historic when you're driving around. They don't make tracks like that nowadays. When they build new Formula One circuits, they don't build them like this."

The Glen is just a short hop across the Canadian border from last weekend's F1 Grand Prix event in Montreal that included a stunning, dramatic win for Hamilton's team mate Jenson Button - but a less successful experience for Hamilton himself.

"I was feeling the tough weekend this morning," Lewis admitted. "But as the excitement built up, and when I got in the car, and once I got out, I completely forgot about last weekend."

The ride swap exhibition drew an estimated audience of 10,000 along with a lot of excitable motor sports media. The event was organised by Mobil 1, one of Tony Stewart's primary Cup series sponsors and the 'Official Motor Oil of NASCAR', and was a major ambition of Watkins Glen president Michael Printup to bring an F1 car back to the circuit, who admitted: "This was my dream come true."

Watkins Glen hosts one of NASCAR's two road course events in a season of 36 races - the Cup field will be racing there again on August 14, when hopefully the conditions will be rather nicer than the dull and wet weather the car swap faced this week. However, the NASCAR event normally omits the mile-long section of the course dubbed "the boot" and Stewart would like to see that change in the future.

"I enjoyed the long course," Stewart enthused. "I'd never been around it till today. I told [NASCAR competition director] Brett Bodine when we got out of the car after our set-up runs that I would like the opportunity to see us having a shot at running the long course ... I think it would create more passing opportunities, for sure, and it's just such a historic racetrack, and there are some really cool corners down there that we don't get a shot to run on a Cup weekend."

Current Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has said much the same thing after running a Grand-Am race at the Glen last year, and Michael Printup said he would flag this up to NASCAR president Michael Helton right away.

"I've asked them over and over again, and I think this was just the real live testimonial that it can happen," he said. "Our races are becoming shorter now [in duration], because we've paved all the gravel traps, and we've taken out a lot of the mishaps and [lost a lot] of track time. Now we just have to pave 8, which is down in the heel of the boot, and I think we could have some great racing.

"Like Tony and I were talking after the [car swap], it's just going to give us a lot more opportunity to pass," Printup continued, saying that the trade-off would see a reduction in the number of overall laps. "I think that would make it more exciting for the fans, and it opens up another major section where fans love to view racing."

At 40, there's no chance any more of Tony Stewart ever making the move to F1, but a future career in NASCAR may be something that 26-year-old Lewis Hamilton considers whenever he decides his time in F1 is up.

He would be in good company, with former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and Hamilton's predecessor at McLaren Juan Pablo Montoya already having gone down that road with varying degrees of success - Montoya already having made history by becoming the first non-American driver to make it through to the post-regular season Chase.

"I'm good friends with Juan," said Stewart. "I like talking to him about what we did in IndyCar racing, his stint in F1. He's a great competitor in the Cup Series. My driver on our team [Ryan Newman], they had a little run-in earlier this year which put me in a bad spot because I'm friends with both of them.

"It's fun to watch guys like [Montoya]. We had him at our [Prelude to the Dream] charity dirt race a couple years ago. He had never been on a dirt track, never driven that type of race car. To watch him adapt to that type of car so quickly, it shows there's great race car drivers around the world. It's a matter of where do they want to be, do they have opportunities."

Stewart made an offer to Hamilton about dirt tracking, should he be interested and available in 2012: "If he wants to come run The Prelude next year, I will personally pay for a brand-new car to come there. If he wants it, he's got it. We'll have him a brand-new one sitting there ready to go!

"Guys like Juan and Nelson [Piquet Jr. in the Truck Series] being able to have the success they're having will create other opportunities for other foreign drivers to come into the series. Our sport has evolved so much over the last 15, 20 years, it used to be a regional sport in the States, now it's nationwide and worldwide. I think NASCAR welcomes everybody with open arms."

Hamilton admitted that "I've not been to a NASCAR race, but I would love to go and get a feel and sense ... I'm sure around the world there's things that we all can learn from each other." But Lewis knows that to turn up to watch a NASCAR race anytime soon would most likely set all sorts of rumours about imminent series defection swirling, much as a meeting with Christian Horner in Montreal had convinced many F1 pundits that a switch for him to Red Bull was on the cards.

"I have spoken to a lot of people during the weekend," insisted Hamilton. "I know all the mergers, the bosses, all the teams. I know Stefano Domenicali ... I know Christian." But he insisted he was happy where he was: "I'm again just very fortunate to be a part of McLaren. It's one of the best teams there, again with great history. We have a car that is capable of winning, as my team mate showed at the weekend."

The Hamilton/Stewart car swap was planned and announced before Kimi Raikkonen - another former McLaren driver - made his foray into the world of NASCAR Trucks and Nationwide series events. The 2007 F1 world champion is now back in Europe with his WRC team and has yet to say whether he will pursue more NASCAR appearances in the future.

In another inter-series car swap event in mid-March this year - this time organised by the Chip Ganassi organisation - former IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon briefly traded cars with NASCAR's Jamie McMurray in an non-publicised event. Dixon ran a stock car at Talladega Superspeedway while McMurray got to try out an IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park.

'I didn't want to come in," said McMurray afterwards, who drives for Earnhart Ganassi Racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup. "I was excited to drive an IndyCar but I had no idea the experience would be like that. It felt as if I never turned the wheel, it was that smooth."

Ganassi IndyCar driver Dixon found just getting in the most surprisingly challenging part of a stock car. "They're definitely pretty hard to get in and out of," he said at the time. "I thought ours would be more difficult, but you just come from the top and slide. Here you've got to 'Dukes of Hazzard' style and slide through the window. And then get your legs in, and there's things you can hit your head on."

Seems like each series has its own unique set of challenges!

See the pictures from the Mobil 1 Car Swap.

See video of the car swap event.


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