Column By: MARTY CZEKALA / RPW – ROCHESTER, NY – Mark your calendars. August 21st will be ice cold in Watkins Glen as former Formula 1 driver Kimi Raikkonen makes his NASCAR Cup Series debut.
The 2007 F1 world champion returns for his first NASCAR start since 2011, when “The Iceman” raced in the Xfinity Series in May 2011, finishing 27th at Charlotte. The week before was his official NASCAR debut racing a NASCAR Camping World Truck with 15th in a Kyle Busch-owned truck.
Raikkonen will be driving in the Trackhouse Racing’s PROJECT91 entry, a program designed to expand its international reach with a part-time third entry meant for international drivers. In the truck race, team owner Justin Marks raced against Raikkonen, placing 9th.
“I wasn’t looking to race again, but Justin came to my home in Switzerland and convinced me how serious he was about putting together a top-notch program,” said Raikkonen in a press release. “This will be fun, but it’s something I will take very seriously. I know how competitive the NASCAR Cup Series is, and it will be a big challenge.”
“Kimi Raikkonen is the driver I first had in mind when we created PROJECT91,” said Marks. “Kimi is a world-renowned driver with tremendous talent and fan following. We have had long discussions, and like us, he is already hard at work preparing for Watkins Glen.”
When Trackhouse announced the PROJECT91 team, discussions began amongst the NASCAR world about who would be the first driver in the #91? The first ideas were to get an international driver from Chip Ganassi Racing, the team that sold its NASCAR assets, including its two charters, to Trackhouse Racing. It fields international drivers from IndyCar champions Alex Palou and Scott Dixon, to IMSA drivers Sebastien Bourdais, Earl Bamber, and Renger van der Zande.
McLaren F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo would’ve been a great fit, as the Aussie grew up as a Dale Earnhardt fan.
But Kimi Raikkonen is a name race fans didn’t think. This was a driver who tried his hand out in NASCAR for two races, moved back to Europe, and returned to Formula 1.
Raikkonen is a huge fan favorite in the sport of F1. For starters, he is known to be calm when under pressure, especially when he has issues in his, like when he has had problems with his drink machine. For those who don’t know, F1 drivers have a water machine in their car for drinking. Raikkonen has had many malfunctions with it and has led to some fascinating quotes on the radio. In addition to the radio, Raikkonen’s “Leave me alone, I know what to do!” message in the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix led to F1 selling a t-shirt of the quote when Kimi retired from F1 this past year.
Despite views being higher this past weekend, NASCAR’s All-Star Race lost in the 18-49 demo to F1, according to Adam Stern. This increase comes from Netflix’s “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which increased attention to F1 in the United States. Plus, with no F1 on the weekend of August 21st, this is an opportunity for the sport to grow a significant demographic.
Also, this is big for Watkins Glen, which attracts incredible road racing drivers. It is the home of IMSA’s Six Hours of the Glen, one of the most famous endurance races in the US. To bring an F1 champion who scored 21 wins and 103 podiums, many fans that just follow the road racing will go to see Kimi. In addition, the race has been a sellout in the stands for the last six years, and an excellent chance to hit seven years with this announcement. F1 also used to race at Watkins Glen from 1961-to 1980, so there is a good chance older F1 fans will make the trip back to the Southern Tier of New York.
If Kimi makes the field, as long as the car count is not over 40 drivers, Raikkonen will be the first former F1 driver to race at Watkins Glen since Nelson Piquet Jr.’s race in 2014, when he finished in P26.