The Frontstretch: A Different Kind of Silly Season by Mike Neff -- Thursday October 5, 2006

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A Different Kind of Silly Season

Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Thursday October 5, 2006

 

Another change may be on the horizon for the face of the NASCAR driver. The sport has gone through the influx of the young gun where drivers with little to no full bodied car experience got rides that would have taken years for them to attain just 10 years ago. In some cases we’ve seen sponsors dictating driver decisions to teams, forcing team owners to put drivers into cars based on their marketability instead of their driving talent. The corporate influence and the almighty dollar have taken over the decision making process, resulting in qualified, experienced drivers on the outside looking for rides that should be theirs after years of toiling at their craft.

Now there is a new kind of driver being foisted onto the NASCAR fan. There have always been forays by open wheel drivers into Cup racing. In the old days, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, and Johnny Rutherford all made occasional starts in Cup cars. Janet Guthrie started in a Cup car in the World 600 before she was able to start in the Indy 500. Scott Pruett and Steve Kinser have also taken a shot at making it in NASCAR. In recent years, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman all made the cross over from open wheel racing to stock cars. However, until now, there has never been a Formula 1 World Champion who has competed full time on the Cup circuit. That will all change next year.

Juan Pablo Montoya is going to run a full Cup schedule next year for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. In an unprecedented step, Montoya agreed to come back to the United States and run a full bodied stock car, after having competed for several years on the F1 circuit. The announcement of his return sent shockwaves through the sport. Was NASCAR now being authenticated as a true, world class racing series, or was Montoya simply washed up and looking for anyone who would put him in a car? That will have to be seen after a year or two of Montoya behind the wheel. But that seems to now only be the tip of the iceberg.

On the heels of the Montoya signing, a new rumor is circulating in the garage area that Jacques Villeneuve will be joining Roush Racing next season. A former Formula One World Champion coming to the ranks of NASCAR? If this rumor is true, it would seem to add much more credence to the validity of NASCAR racing. Having two drivers who formerly competed on the F1 circuit wheeling 3,400 pound stock cars around the United States could be a signal of the globalization of the sport, opening the doors to drivers from all over the world. There couldn't be a greater boon to NASCAR's driver diversity program.

But one must ask the question: Is NASCAR heading down the path of Champ Car Racing and the IRL? One of the biggest complaints about open wheel racing in the US right now is that there are not enough American drivers. Doesn't this trend of signing foreign, open wheel drivers scream that NASCAR is heading the same way? Could this be the death knell for stock car racing as we know it? We'll have to wait and see on that one to. But if the majority of drivers in Cup racing suddenly become foreign born, it will undoubtedly change the way the sport is viewed in the United States. And I personally don't think it will be for the better.

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M. B. Voelker
10/06/2006 05:49 AM
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I think it would be a great shame if Nascar fans rejected drivers for something as trivial as their nation of birth (assuming, of course, that they are working here legally).

The drivers in Nascar’s Cup division ought to be the best of the best regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or which bathroom they use.

There is an ugly word for people who reject a person for one of those reasons: bigot.

frog2lite
10/06/2006 08:40 AM
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Juan Montoya is not a “Formula 1 World Champion”. If/when Villeneuve signs, then your statement will be true. Until then, do your research before posting these stories. sheesh!

Mike
10/07/2006 05:39 PM
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Frog, I apologize if the way I worded the article made it sound like I thought JPM was a former world champion. I will try and make myself more clear in the future. Thanks for the comments. I always appreciate reader comments.

Bill
10/09/2006 12:53 PM
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I agree with you. I think we need to be cautious in opening the doors to too many of the foreign drivers. If we end up with too many, it could alienate the same fan base the currently flocks to the race track each weekend.

One thing that I think is contributing to this sudden interest by the teams has to do with the talent pool available. In a way, it has been created by the Cup teams themselves in not offering opportunities in the Busch Series to development-type drivers. Instead, the past few seasons we have seen more and more Cup drivers running most of the Busch Series. I think this has turned around and bit the teams because there aren’t the drivers aren’t being developed as they had in the past.

 

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