Three New Faces
NASCAR’s reputation as a solidly “good ol’ boy” circuit has long since passed, and now the series is getting a major international flavor.
First it was Juan Pablo Montoya, who shunned IRL and Formula One to join the stock car series, and now former open wheel champions Jacques Villeneuve of Venezuela, Canadian-born Patrick Carpentier and Scotland’s Dario Franchitti are set to drive in the Sprint Cup Series in 2008.
Most of them eased into stock car racing by competing in ARCA and the Craftsman Truck Series and closed out 2007 by testing the Car of Tomorrow (now known as the New Car), which will be used in all 36 Cup races this year.
“It’s definitely a different beast than the truck to drive,” Villeneuve says. “More speed down the straight. And the tires drop off quite quickly as well. So to get your best lap out, you really have to go out hard and try to figure out a lot of things at the same time. So it’s tough, but it’s fun.”
“It’s fast,” he says. “The cars come up to the corners at tremendous speeds. They’ve got no downforce, and they weigh a ton. It’s very hard. You’re always moving sideways and pushing and trying to get the car in the right lane.”
Will these international competitors be accepted by the traditional fan base, many among them longing for the old days when drivers were from the South?
“I’ve never been a villain, so that will be a first for me,” Carpentier says with a laugh. “My kids, they’re Americans. And we live in Vegas, and I’m a U.S. citizen. So I’ve always been – I remember when I was young doing speed skating, going to Lake Placid to train over the winter and stuff like that. But I think it is what it is. I think because of the Car of Tomorrow maybe the teams they want to take a little bit more chance, because I guess with the other car, experience plays a big part into it. It’s almost impossible to come in and keep up with these guys with all the experience and technical background they have.”
Franchitti, probably best known to American audiences as the husband of actress Ashley Judd, says the Car of Tomorrow has more grip, which makes it a little more like what he’s used to. “The thing I’m getting used to is fighting the limit of this car,” he says. “And following people, I’ve managed to see exactly what they’re doing in the car, and you can see how a lot of the quick guys the car doesn’t move quite as much as I’m used to.”
His next project, he says, is “just to get used to that and start searching out the lane that works when it’s hot.”
All three drivers have charted the progress of Montoya to gauge what they might expect in their inaugural Cup season.
“Juan Pablo did a great rookie season, without any stock car experience,” Villeneuve says. “And after having driven one now, it’s obvious – to me anyway – how difficult a job it is and how good he’s done.”
Adds Carpentier, “Basically he’s pretty much the reason we’re all sitting here today because he did so well [in 2007].”