Since Shane van Gisbergen burst onto the scene with his improbable win on the Chicago street circuit in his very first NASCAR Cup Series start, it has been the talk of the series; and for good reason. Just a few weeks later at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the starting lineup started to look more like a United Nations meeting than a stock car race.
No less than seven countries were represented at the backwards Brickyard race, and drivers from other international series have expressed interest in trying their hand in one of the three touring series.
Given the competitiveness for top rides both stateside and abroad, it brought up an interesting discussion: Does NASCAR need a new international contingent of drivers, or given the breadth of seats, do they need NASCAR?
This week, Trenton Worsham and Chase Folsom explore the topic in 2-Headed Monster.
NASCAR Needs New Blood
International competitors are nothing new in the sport of NASCAR. Drivers such as Mario Andretti and Earl Ross are both winners in the highest level of stock car racing, whereas decades later drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose both have claimed wins in the series.
Currently, the lone Cup Series driver not of American descent is Daniel Suarez – who is also a Cup Series winner and Xfinity Series champion. It is most recently however that a driver came from New Zealand, who races in Australia, and whipped the field at their own game in van Gisbergen that has everyone talking.
Given the popularity of the win, and van Gisbergen being showered with potential offers, it begs the question, do they NEED to race here or does NASCAR NEED them?
Most of these drivers as of late, come in to try something new to see if they can do it. Some of these drivers, such as the aforementioned van Gisbergen, are champions in their respective fields. Some others who have raced have been a pair of Formula 1 drivers in Jensen Button and Kimi Raikkonen who won championships in their sport. So why does NASCAR need these drivers?
We can start by looking in at Suarez, who is not only a winner in Cup, but a former Xfinity Series champion. He alone has an international fan base known as ‘Daniel’s Amigos’ who comes out in droves at a good portion of the California races as well as Texas, waving flags and making lots of noise. His team, Trackhouse Racing, is co-owned by musician Pitbull, also nicknamed ‘Mr. Worldwide’. He grew up in Florida with parents who were immigrants from Cuba, his father organizing a massive boatlift helping hundreds of people flee from Castro’s Cuba. While being American by birth, his heritage and culture are far from it.
After van Gisbergen became the first driver in more than 60 years to win in his first Cup start at Chicago, some of the reaction community on YouTube, in which some don’t watch lots of NASCAR, say they tuned in to watch him race and reacted to it.
Formula 1 fans have tuned in to watch Raikkonen and Button and leaving the most recent race at Indianapolis, seven countries were represented. The sport is beginning to be looked at seriously and learned about in a positive way due to these drivers coming in, versus just a slapstick sport reflected in comedies, or big wreck videos online.
NASCAR has its hand in expansion series in Europe, Mexican, and Canada, while still divisions of NASCAR, some have various differences. EuroNASCAR focuses primarily on road courses and street courses where as the Pinty’s Series in Canada has more ovals.
Watching some of the content from these divisions shows it is more of a festival environment with fans seeing the cars and drivers in person or at events leading up to the weekend. If these fans follow their local heroes this close, imagine the attention of drivers racing at the highest level from these parts of the world.
While not being a driver, Garage 56 having its exhibition entry from NASCAR in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year had an impact globally as well. NASCAR drivers racing in endurance events is nothing new, but they have never raced something along the lines of what they’re used to competing in. The endeavor caught positive light from the media and the interest of the fans there, especially when it came to pit stops vs the rest of the field. That was something NASCAR needed in terms of getting more global eyes on the sport, mainly from a technical side.
Diversity is something NASCAR has pushed and striven for over the last few years and adding more representation from around the world would accomplish that. These drivers don’t need a Daytona 500 or championship to validate their careers. They’re already regarded as some of the best in the world, champions in their disciplines, with a worldwide following already in some cases.
NASCAR Has More to Offer For Drivers – Regardless of Nationality
For decades, the question has floated around as to where NASCAR sits in the world of motorsports. Some say NASCAR drivers are the best in the world, while others, mainly those who watch a certain Drive to Survive series, see NASCAR as an inferior form of motorsports who “only turn left”. But how much does NASCAR actually need drivers from other forms of motorsports, and how much do they need NASCAR? In my opinion, neither party needs the other, they just happen to enjoy the company.
In all seriousness, fans love seeing the open wheel, road course specialists come over and race with the cup guys. It adds publicity and adds a global aspect to the series, and more of an international appeal. I personally grew up in the days of Ron Fellows, Alex Tagliani, Jacques Villeneuve, Boris Said, and many others, running every road course race they could, and often competing for wins, and it was always fun to watch. But at the same time, this wasn’t ever necessary to keep the NASCAR fan base around. If anything, it only gave hardcore NASCAR fans someone to root against as they wanted to see their own personal favorites that they watch race every week, bring it to the “ringers”.
Just in the past two years, we’ve seen plenty of notable road course specialists come over and try NASCAR, as the new car has brought an intriguing new element to the sport. Former Formula 1 drivers Raikkonen, Daniil Kvyat, Button, and Kamui Kobayashi have come over to race, as well as other notables such as Brodie Kostecki, Mike Rockenfeller, van Gisbergen, and Jordan Taylor. While it is great to see these drivers come over and give NASCAR a shot, one could argue that they don’t exactly make the NASCAR field more competitive for that specific race, despite their track records in other sports.
Remove van Gisbergen from the conversation and the drivers listed above have an average finish of 29th across 14 starts in the past two seasons, with a best finish of 18th by Button at Circuit of the Americas this past March.
As we know, van Gisbergen has somewhat set the world on fire in his two starts in the Trackhouse Racing Project91 car, with his stunning win at the Chicago street course and a very respectable top 10 at Indianapolis likely propelling him to some sort of seat at Trackhouse. As for everyone else however, they may have had decent showing based on a number of circumstances due to regulars falling out or crashing – but that’s a long way from being a threat to win or a top 15 fixture.
There’s an argument to be made that the addition of these road course ringers doesn’t increase the value of the on track product, and therefor NASCAR doesn’t need them.
Another example that proves that NASCAR doesn’t need the ringers are the TV ratings. Going back and looking at the ratings, there is no clear increase in viewership related to when these drivers compete, showing that the fan base is still going to watch, or not watch, regardless of them being in the field.
The race at Watkins Glen International last year – which had a rain delay – hosted multiple international drivers and ranked in the bottom half of viewership on the season, with just above 2.5 million viewers, it was ranked 19th of the 36 races on the cup series schedule.
This season’s race at COTA showed more of the same, with just over 3.1 million viewers, it only ranks 11th of 24 races run so far this season, while the race at Indianapolis this past weekend ranks 13th with 2.8 million viewers. To add to this, both the COTA race and the Indy race were down on viewers from a season ago despite the addition of the road course ringers. Now, the Chicago Street race brought in 4.8 million viewers in the US, but despite van Gisbergen’s epic performance on the streets of the windy city, that was most likely due to the fact that it was the first street race in NASCAR history, not the addition of him and Button to the field.
On the other side of things, this isn’t discrediting what these drivers have done in other forms of motorsports. They’re all world class drivers that just specialize in their specific form of motorsports, and not many people can pull an SVG, or a Kyle Larson for us NASCAR fans, and just jump in any new car and be competitive. It’s also not to say that we don’t want them to come give American stock car racing a shot, by all means the more the merrier. It is simply to say that NASCAR doesn’t need them to be successful. – Chase Folsom
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