Bob Varsha Analyzes Raikkonen's Move to NASCAR It may have been one of the shortest-lived rumors in NASCAR.
It took only a couple of days for last week’s rumblings of Kimi Raikkonen’s move to NASCAR to become fact. Kyle Busch Motorsports announced over the weekend that the 2007 Formula One champion, currently competing in World Rally Championship after leaving a nine-year F1 career at the end of 2009, will debut in a KBM Toyota Tundra at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the May 20 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race (live on SPEED at 8 p.m. ET; NCWTS Setup with Krista Voda at 7:30 p.m. ET).
Below, Bob Varsha, voice of Formula One on SPEED, weighs in on the news that took him by surprise, and shares what he saw Monday morning at Raikkonen’s NASCAR test at Gresham Motorsports Park near Jefferson, Ga:
You originally said you thought the Kimi Raikkonen to NASCAR announcement was an April Fool’s joke. What was your initial reaction to the confirmed news?
Varsha: “My initial reaction was total shock and I’m still trying to get my arms around the fact that Kimi, who is famously self-absorbed when it comes to other forms of racing around the world, would suddenly put his signature to quotes that gushed endlessly about the spirit of American racing and that NASCAR looks like fun. It’s not like Kimi at all, who is one of the most taciturn individuals I’ve ever come across, certainly in motor sports.”
You were at Raikkonen’s test at Gresham Motorsports Park Monday. What did you see?
Varsha: “I was at Gresham Motorsports Park this morning to watch him test one of Kyle Busch’s race trucks. I was there with my colleague Leigh Diffey, one of his relatives and an independent camera man from a FOX affiliate in Atlanta – four people total on a half-mile race track and I knew we were in trouble when the team started looking at us in the grandstand for a long period of time, and sure enough, a couple of the guys from the track came over and told us we had to leave, that the team wanted us off the premises even though we’d been given permission to be there by the team. I guess since the team rented the track, it was up to them to tell us to leave, which kind of surprised me because I thought Kimi was the kind of guy who really doesn’t care what anyone thinks about anything he does.”
“I only saw him make a few reconnaissance laps in a street Toyota Tundra. I left the race track as asked and stood outside the fence a couple hundred yards away and watched the race truck get up to speed. It certainly looked representative. I don’t even know if it was Kimi in the truck or someone else. It could have been Kyle (Busch) himself base-lining the truck. Whoever was in it did about 20 laps and then pulled into the pits and I then went home.”
Why do you think Raikkonen is trying his hand at NASCAR now?
Varsha: “That’s really hard to say. Because I find the whole venture so unusual for Kimi, I have to suppose it’s just another challenge for Kimi. He certainly has made all the money he’ll ever need in Formula One. Contrary to what I think is the popular belief out there, he is not a contracted rally driver in the WRC. Kimi can do whatever he wants. I still find it odd because he is such a reserved guy and hated dealing with the press in F1. That supposedly was one of his motivations for leaving the sport after winning the ’07 World Championship. If Kimi knows anything about NASCAR, he knows NASCAR drivers are almost compelled to be gregarious, fan-friendly, work with the press and so on, which is completely unlike the Kimi those of us who have been involved with his career in F1 know. It just seems so odd.”
Do you think Raikkonen is in for a culture shock when it comes to the up-close-and-personal interaction with NASCAR media and fans?
Varsha: “Unless Kimi just thinks he’s going to come over here and be Kimi and not talk to anyone or hide away somewhere and just get his jollies driving left turn after left turn after left turn without dealing with anybody, in which case I think the whole thing probably will come to a bad end. But it’s very early days here, so who knows? Maybe Kimi will fall in love with the idea of oval track racing and NASCAR and become the greatest un-American-born star in the history of the sport. I’m not trying to poison the waters for Kimi. He’s a superb driver, a guy who came right to Formula One with less than two dozen races in any kind of car on his resume. He proved that he’s spectacular and determined. He may do very well but I just don’t know where the interest is coming from.”
Is World Rally Championship a good intermediate point between F1 and NASCAR for Raikkonen?
Varsha; “I think rally is an exceptional preparation for NASCAR. As Kyle Busch said himself, it’s difficult for open wheel guys (to make the move to NASCAR). What JPM has done is remarkable because he, like most of the open wheel stars who have come to NASCAR for a taste have found, it’s a huge challenge to go from a high-downforce car with a lot of tire grip, aero and mechanical grip, and get in a NASCAR stock car, which has some downforce but has comparably narrow tires, and all the grip basically is mechanical. The cars are sliding all the time and the tires are very hard and difficult to get your arms around. That has been the downfall of more than one open wheel driver who came to the series unless you have exceptional car control skills. That’s not to say that those who have come and gone haven’t, but certainly Montoya was well-known as being a terrific Formula One driver on cold tires after pit stops and restarts and that sort of thing. And Kimi, being a native Finn, and growing up driving on slippery roads all the time, will have very good car control skills. Look at all the great rally car drivers from Finland. Now here is Kimi practicing as a top-level rally driver in a low downforce car with a lot of sliding around. I think that will set him up perfectly to deal with the challenges of NASCAR.”
Would Raikkonen be among your top F1 driver picks to potentially succeed in NASCAR?
Varsha: “He would be among my top picks. He is a very talented guy and if anybody could do it, if he really puts his mind to it and gives it everything he’s got, he would be one of my first choices to make it.”
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