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.
Raikkonen's only just out of his rookie year with WRC, but he's putting himself through the newbie process all over again to try out NASCAR. How does a new driver get to grips with the challenges facing him in a new series? Unlike F1 (and even WRC) where drivers get to use state of the art simulators and slightly less advanced PlayStation games to familiarise themselves with the cars and with the tracks they'll be racing on, there's no substitute in NASCAR to just getting in the vehicle and going out there.
"We've sent him a few videos the past couple of years of truck racing at Charlotte," said his new team boss, Kyle Busch. "He'll get a good view of what to expect with the in-car stuff, listening to throttle control, how much you're on the gas and how to race people."
Kimi has already had some track time in a NASCAR Truck, starting with two days of testing at Gresham Motorsports Park and a third at Rockingham, a popular test venue for NASCAR teams from all three national series. Kimi impressed the Kyle Busch Motorsports team with how fast he was able to be, and how quickly he was up to speed.
"He did a great job - he jumped right in the truck and was up to pretty good speed right out of the gate," said Busch. "I got in the truck right after him on the hot tyres and went out there and ran the same lap times as he did. I couldn't go any faster."
Raikkonen's crew chief for Charlotte will be Doug Howe, who saw victory lane at Daytona earlier this year with Michael Waltrip. Busch's own crew chief Eric Phillips worked with Raikkonen at the Gresham and Rockingham tests and said that he had been "really impressed. He did a great job ... When we got to Rockingham, in four laps, he'd run faster than we'd been there testing with Brian [Ickler] or Tayler [Malsam] last year."
"Of all of our NASCAR national series, the Truck Series has the most downforce, but it's also the draggiest", said Truck Series director Wayne Auto, agreeing that it made Trucks a good fit with Raikkonen's career experience of high downforce/high power-to-weight ratio racing. Be he cautioned Raikkonen that no matter how much solo testing a driver does, it barely prepares him for the sensation of driving in traffic with other cars running alongside just millimetres away.
"I think that's going to be his hardest adjustment: What does it feel like, especially for somebody in the Truck Series, when somebody's on that right side," Auton said. "Because if you don't know what it feels like, it will pull you around. And I don't care how great a driver you are ... You can't sit here and tell anybody that. They've got to get that feel for it on the race track," he added. "Kimi Raikkonen is used to having someone on that right side, but it's not pulling that vehicle and tugging on it."
Narain Karthikeyan warned that in his experience, it was as much enemy action as aerodynamic happenstance that caused new drivers to fly off the track: "They bump you off and everything ... They just move you out of the way and then you need to get aggressive and take control."
Many critics of NASCAR like to deride how easy it is to merely "drive around in circles" with no complicated track layouts to learn and develop lines through. But Auton pointed out that the simplicity is deceptive and that oval racing has its own brand of infinite subtlety, just like road courses.
"We go into things like, 'Here's how this race track races compares to other race tracks that you've raced at. You may have been here before, but this turn's a little different. You want to run high here, you want to run low here," he explained. "Learning the line is probably the hardest thing that a rookie can do. Kimi's coming into a race track that's so track sensitive that one lap, it'll be this and the next lap, it's something totally different."
Kyle Busch - being Kyle Busch - takes a plainer, simpler view of things. "As far as the truck goes, it's pretty simple.
"He'll go over to the NASCAR R&D centre and sit down there with those guys and kind of get an explanation of the driver's meeting. He'll get the long version, the one that tells you all about double file [restarts], passing the pace car on the wave-around ... He'll get the long version of that just so he can get the idea of how that works," said Kyle. "Other than that, that's pretty much it."
In ascending order, Kimi's aims today are first to qualify; then, to qualify in the top half of the field; and then to run to the end of the full race distance of 200 miles. "If he's on the lead lap [at the end], that will be an amazing result for Kimi," agreed Karthikeyan. "He shouldn't get wrecked - that's the biggest thing."
Karthikeyan himself finished 13th in his series debut at Martinsville in 2010, while the best debut result recorded by an F1 alumni in Trucks was sixth place at Daytona in 2010 for Nelson Piquet Jr., who will be competing against Busch at Charlotte this week along with another old face from the F1 paddock, Max Papis - albeit from quite a bit before Kimi's time.
Narain Karthikeyan won't be there - he's back in Barcelona, putting the Hispania F1 car through its paces in preparation for the Spanish Grand Prix. While he clearly feels he himself still belongs more in F1, he thinks that for Kimi Raikkonen NASCAR could be a very good move and that he'll find the atmosphere better than the stuffy, uptight corporate world that drove him out of F1: "It's so relaxed and it's a lot of fun. He will enjoy it for sure."
And at the moment, isn't that what it's all about for Raikkonen - finding something new in motorsport that he can enjoy for years to come? It seems that the Finn just wants to have fun.Camping World Trucks Series schedule - Friday, May 20
- 09.00 ET / 14.00 BST - Practice 1
- 10.20 ET / 15.20 BST - Practice 2
- 16.00 ET / 21.00 BST - Qualifying
- 20.00 ET / 01.00 BST - NC Education Lottery 200 race
The race will be shown live and free-to-air on Sky channel 433 by Premium Sports TV from 1am on Saturday morning; the channel is not available on any other broadcast platform in the UK.