It used to be that when drivers were put out to pasture by Formula 1, they were able to resurrect their careers in Indycar, at one time America’s premier open wheeled racing division. Nigel Mansell was one of the most stellar examples of this. After Mansell had won the title for Williams F1 in 1992, Frank Williams nudged his star driver out of the team to make room for Alain Prost, who would take his fourth F1 title during his one and only year of driving for Williams. Meanwhile, Mansell crossed the pond at the invitation of CART team owner, and Paul Newman partner, Carl Haas, and in 1993 Mansell won the Indycar title in his rookie year.
Other F1 defectors who found varying degrees of success in the CART sactioned series include Emerson Fittipaldi (who won the CART title once, and the Indy 500 twice), Christian Fittipaldi (nephew of Emerson), Teo Fabi, Raul Boesel and Stefan Johansson. In addition, Nelson Piquet, Sr., never a series regular, made a couple of stabs at the Indy 500, in 1992 and 1993. He crashed and was badly injured in the first attempt, and retired in the second.
The glory days of CART are long gone, however. Tony George reclaimed the Indycar brand, and CART/Indycar morphed into ChampCar, in which guise it floundered for several years before being merged with Tony George’s rival series, the Indy Racing League. The decade long rivalry between the two brands, however, caused an irreperable dent in the fan base of American open wheeled racing. During that period, NASCAR enjoyed an enormous growth curve, and they are now the dominant franchise in American motorsports.
Which brings us to the current trend of Formula 1 retirees looking to NASCAR to extend their careers. While the IRL, ostensibly a franchise designed to foster homegrown talent, does, in fact, enjoy an enormous amount of cross-fertilization from abroad, the drivers lured from the Formula 1 pool have largely come from the lower end of the grid. The marquee names are now drawn to NASCAR, instead.
Juan Pablo Montoya is the most prominent example. Fed up with Formula 1 in general, and McLaren-Mercedes and Ron Dennis in particular, Montoya made a call to former boss Chip Gnassi in 2006 and asked for a ride with Gnassi’s NASCAR team. Gnassi was initially skeptical, but in the end he took Montoya on board. Many Formula 1 fans assume that NASCAR is a refuge for fat old men, and that Formula 1 drivers could master the craft with their eyes closed, but Montoya has shown that the NASCAR learning curve is as steep as any other. Instead of taking the sport by storm, he has moved slowly and steadily up through the field, with 2009 being his best year so far. He is currently 3rd in the point standings. He has received offers to return to Formula 1, but he has turn them all down.
Another former Formula 1 driver who has looked at NASCAR for a career revival is Jacques Villeneuve. Villeneuve, like Montoya, won a CART title as a precursor to making a move to Formula 1. And like Montoya, he did not consider the open-wheeled option (i.e. the IRL) when looking for new opportunities in North America. While he did contest 4 races in stock cars, and 7 in trucks, he was unable to secure sponsorship for a long term drive. He is now cruising the Formula 1 paddock again, hoping to find an opening in 2010.
Most recently, there have been reports that current Toyota pilot Jarno Trulli, and former F1 driver, Mika Salo, will both be testing for Michael Waltrip Racing.
According to a report on FOXSports.com, after Trulli has completed this year’s Formula 1 season, he will be fitted for a seat at MWR, and will then join team to observe their operations for the final three races of the NASCAR season. As reported by Reuters, Trulli has downplayed the significance of the venture, saying, “Last year I had the chance to visit a NASCAR race at Michigan, which was a really interesting experience for me. NASCAR is one of the most significant motorsport series in the world and I was very curious to see the racing first hand. At the time I asked the Toyota guys in the U.S. if it would be possible to one day test a car just for fun and before the Belgian Grand Prix they offered me the chance to do so later in the year.” Lest anyone jump to conclusions, Trulli added, “My commitment is 100 percent to Formula One.” However, with increasing speculation that his seat on the Toyota F1 team might be up for grabs, it’s fair to assume that the test with the Waltrip organization isn’t being treated as Sunday drive in the park.
Meanwhile, according to Cal Wells, executive vice president of MWR, the test with Mika Salo will be a straightforward evaluation, and not just an ostensible courtesy test. Said Wells, “We’re serious about the test — we’re not going to jack around. It’s a real deal. But I’m not sure what it’s going to turn into. It depends on what is real. It depends on what we can afford to do. We don’t have a sponsor here saying, ‘Let’s go get a Finnish driver’. But, I think after a proper evaluation if he can go to Finnish companies that would support him in the U.S., then that would be wonderful.”
In other words, if the Salo test goes well, and Salo could lure some Finnish sponsorship (does the name Nokia ring a bell?), then we might see a Flying Finn on the high banks of Daytona in 2010. Perhaps Mika Hakkinen, who has already enjoyed some success in tin-tops (the German DTM series) should consider a similar move.
Finally, in what has to be the comic relief of this story, Nelson Piquet, Jr. has announced that he, too, is scheduled for a NASCAR test. According to his official website, “Nelson Piquet will test a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra at Little Rock for Red Horse Racing…Piquet plans to use this test with Red Horse Racing to evaluate a future career among the NASCAR ranks and looks forward to a new challenge.”
If nothing else, during his stint in Formula 1, Piquet demonstrated a knack for hitting the wall at will. The NASCAR series is known for being more of a contact sport than Formula 1, so perhaps this trait will serve him well on this side of the pond.