NASCAR isn't exactly secluded to the United States anymore. It's far from having the reach of Formula 1, but thanks to the Next Gen cars and international race winners, stock car racing is viewed in a more modern light than ever. That's likely part of what's drawn retired F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen to make his Cup Series debut next week. Importantly, this also kickstarts Trackhouse Racing's Project 91 initiative which aims to bring more big-name drivers from outside the U.S. to NASCAR.
Justin Marks, owner of Trackhouse Racing, announced his plans for Project 91 back in May. He knew that he'd be using the team's third charter, the No. 91 Chevy Camaro, at least once this season to showcase international talent. Raikkonen is a natural pick seeing as he's raced in NASCAR before, just not in the Cup Series.
“Project 91’s mission is to activate the intersection point of NASCAR racing and global motorsport culture,” Marks said. “I truly believe the Next Gen car represents an opportunity for NASCAR to enter the global professional motorsport conversation. We now have a race vehicle with international technological relevance where world-class drivers from other disciplines can compete at NASCAR’s highest level without the steep learning curve that the previous generation cars required."
He continued, “Vehicle advancements used in other forms of motorsports, such as diffusers, independent rear suspension, the sequential gearbox, and other more common components, have resulted in a platform much less reliant on intimate proprietary stock car knowledge, which has historically made any transition to NASCAR difficult."
Raikkonen will race the road course at Watkins Glen on Aug. 21. As you might've already seen, he's been turning laps this week at Virginia International Raceway to prepare. Marks told Racer that he's been consistently impressed by the 42-year-old, and Raikkonen is already adapting to the car.
“From a speed and preparation and knowledge standpoint, I think he’s going to be right on par," Marks said. "I think where the challenge is going to be is making sure he understands the race from a procedural standpoint—that he understands the rules and all that."
To be sure, NASCAR is a lot different than F1, which is where Raikkonen raced just last year. He notched 21 wins over the course of his 19-season grand prix career with one drivers' title in 2007. This adds a certain level of credibility to Trackhouse's program and indeed NASCAR as a whole, meaning we could see other world champions moonlight in a Chevy Camaro soon.
There's only one more regular season race after Watkins Glen, so there may not be another Project91 entry in 2022. Even then, there's always next year, which is when we're slated to see a Next Gen Cup car take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That effort is a collaboration between NASCAR, Chevy, and Hendrick Motorsports, but don't be surprised if it has another European star ringing Marks' line at the end of the day.
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