20 May 2011
Rookie Raikkonen: out onto the NASCAR stage
How does a former F1 world champion adjust to being a rookie again, in a motor sport series totally unlike anything he's ever experienced in the past? Welcome to NASCAR Trucks, Kimi.
The day is here at last: in a few hours time, Kimi Raikkonen will be heading out onto the 1.5 mile Charlotte Motor Speedway oval in his NASCAR series début. Whether this turns out to be a minor distraction or the start of a long and successful career Stateside for the Finn, it's certainly a big moment for him.
The first big challenge will be qualifying for the race itself: with 45 entrants and only 36 grid positions available, nine trucks will be packing up early, and Kimi's priority will be to make sure that the #15 Perky Jerky Toyota Tundra truck is not among them or it will be very embarrassing for him and hugely disappointing for fans at Charlotte and watching on TV around the world if he doesn't make it through.
Current Hispania driver Narain Karthikeyan - who raced in nine NASCAR Truck races last year before returning to F1 - seemed confident that Kimi would clear this first hurdle. "I'm presuming that he will qualify quite well because he's done some testing," he told Autosport magazine this week. "I think if he's in the top 15 he's done really well for himself in qualifying."
The American series fans, drivers and officials will all doubtless be very welcoming to Raikkonen today. After all, his arrival into NASCAR is proof of what they know with absolute conviction: that everyone in the world sees US sport as the best in the world, the pinnacle and the only place to be. Even F1 world champions obviously agree, they point out.
"We're fortunate enough to have such a great series that we have a competitor like Kimi Raikkonen want to come and compete in Trucks," says Truck Series director Wayne Auton, whose job includes inducting newcomers into the world of NASCAR and its rules and regulations.
Talking about his role, Auton says: "We bring [rookies] in and say, 'Here's when the meetings are. Here's the papers you've got to sign. Here's where the drivers meeting location is and by the way, you've got to go to the rookie meeting or you miss practice. You've got to be at the drivers meeting or you go to the rear. You've got to be at driver introductions in uniform, ready to go.'"
Like FIA's superlicense requirements for F1, NASCAR jealously guards the keys to the NASCAR gateway to make sure newcomers are up to scratch and to decide at what level - Sprint, Nationwide or Truck - they should be allowed to enter. Brett Bodine, NASCAR's director of cost and research, has a database of the careers of drivers thought likely to express an interest in NASCAR just in case an application from them should land on his desk; he doesn't let slip whether Raikkonen was on that database before the shock news broke at the end of March or whether he too was caught by surprise, but he does concede that it's rare to get a CV of Raikkonen's stature.
"The guy's a world champion Formula 1 driver ... I don't know if there's many credentials that top that, you know?" laughs Bodine. "Certainly where he wanted to start racing was fine with us. He wanted to start in the Trucks at Charlotte, and that's a great place for him to get started."
It seems that Auton, for all his Southern hospitality and welcoming nature, doesn't have access to the same sort of database on rookie drivers as Bodine does when he refers to the adjustments he believes are ahead of Raikkonen: "He's used to open-wheel, open-cockpit [cars]. Now he's going to have a roof over his head and windows around him," he said, demonstrating how little presence and brand awareness/penetration the World Rally Championship has in the States.
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