Former F1 World Champion and current World Rally Championship star Kimi Raikkonen will compete in up to five events for the front-running Kyle Busch Motorsports outfit in the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS), it has been confirmed.
The first rumours linking Raikkonen to a NASCAR foray emerged last week, and although initially dismissed in some quarters as an early April Fool, they swiftly gathered pace – and credence – after he was subsequently approved to compete by the championship's sanctioning body [see separate story – click here
What was somewhat wide of the mark, however, was the speculation that suggested the Finn would be linking up with controversial NASCAR pariah Foster Gillett, the man widely condemned for pummelling Richard Petty Motorsport into near-financial oblivion.
Rather, the 'Ice Man' will be joining forces with Kyle Busch Motorsports for a limited schedule of 'between three-to-five races' in a KBM truck, and will partner defending NCWTS owners' champion Busch inside the team that triumphed in ten of the 35 races last year as and when his partial WRC programme allows, beginning with the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on 20 May.
Raikkonen is due to test his new toy around the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park oval in Jefferson, Georgia, today (Monday), and a KBM spokesman has insisted that Gillett 'did not have any involvement – this deal is between us and Kimi'.
“I am really excited to have the opportunity to start my venture into NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports," enthused the 18-time grand prix-winner. “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. He has put together an experienced team that builds fast race trucks. I look forward to being a part of a team that has proven to be a winner on and off the race track.”
Both 2009 Nationwide Series Champion Busch and KBM general manager Rick Ren are similarly enthusiastic about the dynamic new partnership.
“I have yet to speak to Kimi myself, but apparently there's an interest with him that he wants to run in NASCAR and he's been shopping around to quite a few teams, and apparently we won the war,” Busch revealed, admitting that he is 'honoured' to have secured the services of such a high-profile driver. “Kimi, from what I understand, was real adamant about wanting to work with me and our team and put together a deal.
“I don't know where the money is coming from. My contract is with Kimi himself. I do know that there are three sponsors involved [and] there is money backing him. We're starting at Charlotte and we'll kind of fill out from there, see what other races he wants to do and what his schedule will allow him to do. We know we're going to test with him on Monday and get him some laps in the truck, and then we're going to see him in Charlotte, so we're looking forward to that – all the Kyle Busch Motorsports people are.
“I think some of these guys from F1, or from an open-wheel background I should say, [are] trying to take a step into NASCAR and are seeing that it is pretty neat. It kind of gives a world presence to NASCAR. Everybody thinks that F1 is the world series, [but] I think [with] NASCAR, as big as it is, a lot of drivers want to see how they can do over here and how they can have a feel for a race car over here.
“Adding one of the most talented drivers in the world is a continuation of building a team of proven winners and champions at KBM. He seems to be good in whatever he's been able to race in. I look forward to assisting in Kimi's transition to NASCAR as both an owner and team-mate.”
“We are extremely excited to have Kimi Raikkonen begin his transition to NASCAR behind the wheel of Kyle Busch Motorsports' Toyota Tundra,” echoed Ren said. “As NASCAR looks to expand its fan base and generate further interest in certain demographics, having a former F1 World Champion with worldwide appeal is a huge deal, not just for KBM but for the sport as a whole.”
A more extensive schedule of races depends upon Raikkonen's ability to bring further funding to the cause, it is understood, but should his transition go well, the 31-year-old has reportedly hinted at a future switch to the headlining Sprint Cup Series.
Whatever he does, his signing is irrefutably a major coup for NASCAR, and in throwing his hat into the ring, he will follow in the wheel tracks of erstwhile McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Juan-Pablo Montoya as well as the likes of fellow ex-F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve, Nelsinho Piquet, current grand prix returnee Narain Karthikeyan, Max Papis and Scott Speed, who have encountered mixed fortunes there.
Montoya has expressed his concern that 'my first choice wouldn't be Charlotte to start my first race', but Busch is adamant that whilst the North Carolina track is not an easy one for a NASCAR rookie compared to the superspeedways – where handling is less important – it was Raikkonen's own desire to begin there, stressing that it will be less gruelling in the Truck Series than it would in either the Nationwide Series or Sprint Cup.
“It's a big deal for him to be able to fit it in when he can, and Charlotte, they actually picked Charlotte,” explained the 25-year-old defending race-winner. “For whatever reason, they were adamant about Charlotte and running that race. It'll be good for him to get his feet wet. I would say that if he can run top 15 or top 20 in his first truck race, that would be a success.”
“I think Kimi Raikkonen has got enough experience to debut at a place like that,” concurred Dale Earnhardt Jnr. “He'll be in great equipment – you couldn't ask for any better equipment there – so I think it'll be fine. It should work out great.”