One of those motor racing stories appeared this week which had all the hallmarks of being an ideal April Fool’s tale but as the days have passed the story has gained substance and it is now official that 2007 Formula One World Champion, Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen, is to race in selective NASCAR races in the Camping World Truck Series this season with the hope of graduating to the Sprint Cup series.
Originally published in a Finnish newspaper the suggestion was that RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen would take part in a truck race in his own ICE team run by Foster Gillett, son of George Gillett, former boss of Richard Petty Motorsports and Liverpool Football Club. Gillett brought RPM to its knees to the extent that for the last few races of 2010 the finances were being arranged on a week by week basis with RPM employees turning up at the race shop not sure whether it would be open for business each day. The story about Gillett’s departure from the Liverpool FC has been well documented in the British press.
For that reason it was hard to give the Finnish newspaper story too much credence; the Gillett name has precious little credibility in NASCAR circles these days and it would have been hard to imagine many, or any, businesses connected with stock car racing giving any sort of help, financial or otherwise to a racing organisation with one of the Gilletts at the helm.
NASCAR’s confirmation that RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen had indeed submitted an application to race in one of their series suggested this was a serious effort and then over the weekend rumours started to emerge suggesting that RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen would test a truck on Monday for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Initially KBM were rather coy when asked any questions about RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen but today announced that he would indeed be driving a limited season in the Camping World Truck Series to dovetail with his World Rally Car Championship commitments. It was also confirmed that RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen would be testing a team Toyota Tundra at Gresham Motorsports Park, a half-mile track at Jefferson, Georgia, used by many NASCAR teams for testing and will make an announcement of his own after the test on Monday.
RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen will have his first race in the series at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20th in the NC Education Lottery 200 race.
“We are honored that Kimi Raikkonen, a former Formula 1 World Drivers' Champion and proven winner, has chosen to start his career in NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports,” said Busch. “Adding one of the most talented drivers in the world is a continuation of building a team of proven winners and champions at KBM. I look forward to assisting in Kimi's transition to NASCAR as both an owner and teammate.”
Busch confirmed that Foster Gillett will take no part in this venture.
Kyle Busch Motorsports became the first team to win the Owner Points title in their inaugral season and currently lead the championship in 2011 after four races, although Busch himself is ineligible for drivers’ points.
Juan Pablo Montoya said he would be delighted to race with his former teammate from the McLaren F1 team of 2005/6 should RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen progress to the Sprint Cup Series as he hopes. “I think it would be cool if he comes here, he’s a cool guy and I think he would fit right in,” Montoya said.
Equally, four times champion, Jeff Gordon, thinks RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen will adapt to NASCAR racing. “I will say this is one type of series and vehicles that is much more difficult to learn than people think, most of the time,” Gordon said. “I think the rally cars he’s been driving probably will give him more experience or get him better prepared to come over to this series than any of his Formula One cars that he’s ever driven. The last thing he needs to do is think he’s going to get one of these cars to feel like a Formula One car, because they never will. I would just tell him to be patient and try to stay in the best equipment he can, and try to go out there and follow the guys who are going fast to learn the lines and the braking points at each of the tracks he goes to. That would be the quickest way to learn and adapt and become competitive.”
Gordon did go on to say, however, that he would make a point of sitting in on RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen’s sessions with NASCAR’s media circus just to see how the reporters and journalists cope with his famously monosyllabic response to questions.
RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen’s presence in NASCAR racing would bring to four the number of F1 World Champions who have raced in North America’s stock car series, preceded as he is by Jacques Villeneuve who still races occasionally, mostly on the road circuits, Mario Andretti who won at Daytona in 1967 – actually before he became World Champion, and Jim Clark, Jimmy to the Americans, 1965 and 67 World Champion plus winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 who raced at Rockingham in the no. 66 Holman and Moody Ford Fairlane in October 1967.