Raikkonen makes his NASCAR debut amid mystery
No one, it seems, knows precisely why Kimi Raikkonen is coming to America except the 2007 Formula One champion. And that's probably perfectly fine with one of the most taciturn drivers in racing.
"He didn't give a (crap) about anything or anyone," says IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, who raced against Raikkonen during the 2003 Formula One season. "He just liked to go fast. At the same time, his attitude is interesting. Take Montoya and times it by 10, and that's where Kimi is. I'm not sure how that will go down. Will they even like him? Or just knock him out straightaway?"
The answers finally will be arriving — literally — today at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Raikkonen, 31, will be attempting to make his Camping World Truck Series debut.
After taking his first practice laps in a Toyota owned by Kyle Busch Motorsports, Raikkonen (who has declined interview requests since revealing his NASCAR plans in March) will take his first questions from reporters in a media session that figures to be filled with monosyllabic responses and perhaps a few cool looks of bemusement from the driver nicknamed "The Iceman."
The most obvious question, though, is "why NASCAR?" for Raikkonen, who retired from F1 in 2009 after making millions of dollars while registering 18 victories and 62 podium finishes in a nine-year career with Sauber, McLaren and Ferrari. There's been little insight from press releases that contained several cheery, canned quotes provided for the Finn (who was dubbed "the Mute from the North" by the F1 media corps).
Stock cars feature skinnier tires and none of the space-age braking and aerodynamics of Formula One. And after a career spent on street and road courses around the world (he jetted directly to Jordan after a test at Rockingham, N.C., last month), Raikkonen will be racing on ovals for the first time.
"He's going to find how difficult the ovals are like everybody does," 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan says. "When I first came, you look at it and think, 'How hard can it be?' It's two turns. And then you go, 'Oh my God, it's a lot tougher than I thought.' "
His experience in rally cars (which are similarly low downforce and require plenty of sliding) should help, as will having grown up in Finland.
"Kimi has phenomenal car control," says Varsha, who briefly attended one of Raikkonen's two stock-car tests before being ejected by the team (which gave the driver high marks). "As a Scandinavian who grew up racing on icy roads, it's something he enjoys."
Raikkonen also apparently likes enjoying himself away from the track. The Internet is filled with photos of him apparently partying the night away, and there's a popular YouTube video in which he appears to fall off a yacht.
During his F1 stint, Wilson said he heard stories of Raikkonen "out the night before a race allegedly drinking and then he'd turn up and win. He's kind of a throwback to the 1970s, James Hunt style," referring to one of F1's greatest wild men.
Says Varsha: "As a swashbuckler he's up there with the Curtis Turners and Flock brothers of NASCAR history. But he's also a very headstrong individual, very cold. He's kind of like Nigel Mansell or Keke Rosberg, who were famous for 'Don't bother me with technology, give me the car. I'll wring its neck, and we'll win or we'll wreck.' Kimi's not well known as a technically astute driver."
Yet he is extremely adaptable. A go-karting phenom, Raikkonen had driven in only 23 auto races when he was signed by Sauber (the team had to cut a deal to obtain an FIA license for Raikkonen). He became acclimated to F1 so quickly during his first season with Sauber in 2001, he immediately was scooped up the following year by McLaren, a perennial powerhouse.
"That's part of his attitude; he didn't care about his surroundings," Wilson says. "A lot of people feel so overwhelmed making that kind of a leap, and he just didn't care. He got in the car and drove. Everyone else would worry, 'Am I doing the right thing? What will people think?' All that sports psychology of staying in the moment, he could do because he didn't care what happened. He didn't care if he made it. He used that to his advantage."
Just don't expect a lot of insight from Raikkonen on how.
"The whole thing is a bit surreal," says Bob Varsha, who is the voice of F1 on Speed. "Kimi never demonstrated much affection for oval track racing. He never expresses much of anything, To see all these shiny, upbeat comments seems so unlike him, trying to wedge Kimi into the bright and smiling 'NASCAR is for the fans' racing paradigm. It's just very strange."
"I think he just wants to try something completely different," says three-time Izod IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, who did exactly that during a half-season move to the Sprint Cup Series three years ago (that was ended by a dearth of sponsorship). "Good for him. He'll certainly have a challenge adapting to NASCAR just because of how different the cars are to drive." USA Today