[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]With the official announcement that Kimi Raikkonen is coming to NASCAR quite a stir has started around the garage and grandstands. With the common consensus being it will be ‘cool’ to see Raikkonen compete in a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck at Charlotte, the most recent open wheel defect took it a step further in providing some insight into two different racing worlds.
It was late 2006 when Juan Pablo Montoya left Formula 1 for NASCAR and joined Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 42 Target machine. Montoya quickly grabbed headlines but struggled early and often even though he won at Sonoma in the summer of 2007. Since then however, Montoya has become a full-fledged stock car driver, wheeling and wrestling around tracks like Daytona and Martinsville to become a contender on a weekly basis.
Montoya openly admits he’s glad he moved to NASCAR when he did and wouldn’t trade it for anything. He’s quite happy with where he is and what he’s doing, even though still searching for his first win on an oval in a series that he calls underrated but very well broadcast.
“The series is a lot higher than people think it is,” said Montoya Friday at Martinsville. “I think people here are underrated at our level against worldwide. 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. I think they are pretty amazing.”
Saying that NASCAR drivers are underrated one of those sad but true statements. Many in the open wheel world, be it Formula 1 or IndyCar, are considered the best drivers in the world. Over the last few years though, they’ve all come to NASCAR: Stewart, Allmendinger, Montoya, Franchitti (who went back to IndyCar after not finding success in NASCAR) and now Raikkonen.
And while open wheel drivers are considered some of the best, the argument can be made they aren’t very diverse. In NASCAR traveling to a road course is considered a unique and rare occasion, it only happens twice a year in the Sprint Cup Series. In open wheel a road course is their bread and butter and has carried over into why Montoya is a threat at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Just some of the many differences between two racing worlds, not many can make the switch and be successful. Montoya for one has gone straight from Formula 1 to the highest level in NASCAR with very little experience in between.
Montoya has nothing but praise for the new home and sport he has found. While NASCAR looks like a stereotype to others, to truly understand it one must experience it. As Montoya describes, NASCAR is exciting and the atmosphere is different than that of Formula 1.
“People in Formula One are very selfish,” he said. “They think there is nothing better out there. You look from technology wise, there’s not. But the actual racing, this is exciting. It’s exciting to watch, it’s exciting to be here. When you hear about ovals and sometimes you watch them, the first time you watch it by yourself, oh yeah it’s a circle. But if you come and actually see how fast we’re going in real life, they go oh yeah that’s a lot faster than people think it is.”
Montoya is proof there is life outside of Formula 1. Every sport and every athlete though believes what they have is the best. Seems preposterous to leave Formula 1 for NASCAR or vice versa. NASCAR will be considered the little engine that could compared to other sports yet as time goes on more attention is forthcoming.
“People are watching,” said Montoya. “Over the last few years 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 emails from people from Formula One, good luck in the race, great qualifying. It’s like oh, you’re paying attention. That is surprising.”
Montoya believes that Raikkonen will fit in with the other drivers in NASCAR. With his departure from one world and introduction into another will draw attention as it did for Montoya and most recently Danica Patrick. Those who may have never watched NASCAR before tune in just to see how they are doing.
Raikkonen will experience that along with a different atmosphere in the garage area and the country. The fan fair is also going to be different. But there’s no difference in NASCAR capitalizing on another driver defecting from open wheel.
NASCAR is no longer about the good ‘ol southern boys slinging mud each Saturday night. Their driver diversity is growing as is its international appeal and it doesn’t hurt when a man with Montoya’s background and credentials say it’s the place that he wants to be.