Racing beat

Dario Franchitti

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.”

Carpentier agrees.

“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.”

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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].”

Aside from piloting an entirely different kind of vehicle, the drivers must also get used to a grueling schedule. IRL and Formula One seasons have far fewer events, and the races are usually spaced out. Cup competition is close to year-round.

“I think the biggest adjustment right now is just driving the car; then we’ll deal with the rest of it as it comes,” Franchitti says. “But it’s definitely a busy schedule.”

Carpentier says the chance to drive Cup outweighs any extra demands.

“I’ve always loved ovals,” he says. “And that’s what I want to do. NASCAR is the place. I was doing it in IRL, but I stopped at the end of ’05 because I didn’t want to do it there anymore. So we’ve been working on it for a while, and for me it’s an unbelievable opportunity for me to be here. We talk about it with my wife and everybody, and I won’t see the kids as much, but it’s such an unbelievable opportunity. I might travel with the motor coach from race to race when they’re close together so I can visit the country at the same time.”

For Villeneuve, it’ll be business as usual schedule-wise.

“The schedule is demanding, obviously, but I don’t think it’s any worse than what I’ve been used to and one where there was less racing but a lot more testing, and with overseas flights going to Australia and all that, it made it very difficult,” he says. “So I don’t see that as a negative. If anything, when you’re in the car, you’d rather be racing than testing anyway.”

Some current drivers, as well as fans, have suggested that the arrival of international drivers takes spots away from Americans who have toiled away at dirt tracks. Do the newcomers to Cup expect any backlash?

Not really.

“I see it from both sides,” Franchitti says. “I see the young kids coming up. We all did the same thing as kids. We’re trying to get rides, and every kid goes through that. But I think what we’ve managed to achieve so far has allowed us to be in this position. And ultimately it’s the team owners who have come to us and said, ‘Hey, we want you to come do this because of that.'”

Says Carpentier, “I know there’s guys that have been running on the dirt track all their life trying to come up. But sometimes it’s just timing. Everybody gets different opportunities.” Carpentier’s been on the speed-skating oval since he was five. “It’s not the same speed and you’re the engine,” he says, “but to me it’s the same thing. When I got on the oval in the Indy cars at first, it felt like home because of that.”

Sam Hornish has struggled to make the switch from open wheels to stock cars. Franchitti, who has competed with Hornish several times, realizes a smooth transition might not be in the offing.

“I’ve raced against Sam a lot, and I think he’s a really good driver,” Franchitti says. “And having now jumped into the COT I can see what he’s up against.”

Regardless of how traditional fans feel, all three drivers hope their “old” fans can find a way to follow them.

“I guess the ones in Europe might find it a little difficult because it’s not easy to see NASCAR in Europe,” Villeneuve says. “But I know I’ve been chatting with people on forums. Some of them have got set up to be able to see what was going on. There’s a fan base in Canada, and after having raced in the states and in IndyCar and winning the Indy 500, there was a fan base in the States.”

Adds Franchitti, “In Europe it’s very, very difficult to get the races on live right now, and that’s something that we’re going to try to change so we can get the European fans and the fans in the UK, get them into watching the races because when they see how competitive it is, I’m sure they’re going to love it.”