Kimi Raikkonen brings an international audience to NASCAR with Cup Series debut

Kimi Raikkonen will be making his Cup Series debut at Watkins Glen on Sunday, with the Finn driving for Trackhouse Racing’s PROJECT91 effort. The Pitbull-backed team’s third car is designed to get international drivers from a variety of disciplines racing in NASCAR.

And first up is Raikkonen, who turned test laps at Virginia International Raceway the week leading up to the race. The Formula One World Champion has a previous foray into NASCAR, competing in three Truck and Xfinity Series races over a decade ago.

“Really before all the work got done to build a brand and actually build out what PROJECT91 was, I had to find somebody that would give immediate legitimacy to it and be interested in doing it,” said Trackhouse team owner Justin Marks. “And to me, really quickly, it was Kimi. He obviously has interest in NASCAR because he’s competed in it before. And he’s newly retired so he has time to do it.”

While Raikkonen is the highest-profile driver in the field on Sunday, he’s not even the only ex-F1 driver in the field. Daniel Kyvat, who drove for Red Bull and Torro Rosso, will be driving for Team Hezeberg, the same team that fielded former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve in the Daytona 500.

It’s all part of an international push inside NASCAR. The sanctioning body intends to partner with Hendrick Motorsports to field a car at next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. “From the early days of NASCAR, it was important to my father that we played a visible role in international motorsports,” CEO Jim France said at the time.

The impetus for all these renewed efforts is the Next Gen car. Not only was it designed with road-course racing in mind, making it potentially more accessible for drivers like Raikkonen, but it’s more cost-effective. The cars aren’t built from scratch, instead using largely shared parts, so a one-off car is cheaper for teams than it’s ever been.

Indeed, Raikkonen had considered a Cup Series run following his foray in NASCAR’s lower series, but couldn’t find a seat.

Trackhouse has said the PROJECT91 program is here to stay, but the publicity Raikkonen is getting, not only in NASCAR but throughout motorsports, might put other teams on the lookout.

“He’s going to be the biggest celebrity in the garage,” Tyler Reddick said. “We have popular drivers over here, but his popularity is on
another level.”

And Marks thinks he’ll be able to attract more drivers of the same caliber.

“I think the interest has always been there, it’s just because NASCAR is so unique and it’s viewed around the world as this interesting form of racing that’s huge in our country that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he said. “I think for people that are true motorsports competitors at that level, they all would love to try it and see what it’s like to run a NASCAR race because there’s just nothing else in the world like it.”

“Hopefully PROJECT91 is a springboard for more participation internationally in the sport because we’re going to showcase to the motorsport world that we’ve got a car that you can come in and you can race and be competitive with as long as the effort around you is right. So I’m hoping this is the beginning of big things.”

As for Raikkonen’s performance himself, drivers offered a mixed bag of thoughts, even teammate Daniel Suarez.

“I think he is going to be fast,” Suarez said. “The speed is there and the racing part is going to be a process because it doesn’t matter how much you practice in the simulator, doesn’t matter how many tests you do – the racing part is the racing part. Its different and he doesn’t know all these drivers. He doesn’t know how they race, he doesn’t know how aggressive they are, so that part is going to take a little bit.  You can bring the best driver in the world and it is going to take some time in the racing part.”

And while Chase Elliott told reporters that “I don’t think anybody should be surprised when he goes and has a good run,” Denny Hamlin thought the opposite.

“It will probably be a huge challenge for him to be remotely competitive in a one-off race,” said Hamilton, adding, “It’s more of a novelty than
anything.”

But however Raikkonen performs on Sunday, the winner will be Trackhouse for bringing international attention not only to their program but to NASCAR. And as the sport wants to move that direction, Watkins Glen is a model.

Owen Johnson