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, AJ 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 F1 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 U.S. 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.