Nelson Piquet Jr. understands the risks involved. For every Juan Pablo Montoya, there’s a Dario Franchitti who moved from the comfy confines of open-wheel to stock car racing… and fell flat on his face. It’s not an easy transition, combined with the impatience of both sponsors and owners to make the first few races over in NASCAR equivalent to tiptoeing around a bunch of landmines.
But after a floundering Formula 1 career stalled, Piquet took a chance on America and making a successful transition to its number one racing series. Can he do it? Early results are so far, so good, including a top-10 finish in his Nationwide Series debut at Watkins Glen that raised some eyebrows and perhaps opened more doors for him down the road. Learn more about what makes this 25-year-old tick as he sat down with Phil Allaway at the Glen to give his impressions, his fears, and his potential future plans running in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Truck divisions.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: We’re about seven months into your transition into stock car racing. You’ve done four races in the Camping World Truck Series and three races in ARCA. Are you satisfied with your progress so far?
Nelson Piquet Jr.: As a racing driver, you always want to go a bit better. You always think that things could have been better, you could have been more up front.
It’s a whole different world [NASCAR]. Not only the car itself, but the way of racing, the ovals.
I think that the trucks went well. I think, in ARCA, that we didn’t match a very, very good team [Eddie Sharp Racing] together that was working with me. I was happy in the Truck races. I was very happy with Billy Ballew. I think that they put a very good truck together. The crew chief [Kevin Starland] was very good with me, he understood me well. I think that we worked very well together.
I think that a lot of… sometimes, it makes a difference, not only in the team being good, but with you having a connection with the crew chief, the crew chief understanding you and being able to develop the car quicker.
So, you always want to do better, but I think it’s been OK. We’ve had three top 10s in the trucks — could have been in the top five already in some of the races, but I was very unlucky and hit a truck in front of me. That threw a little bit of dirt in my radiator. I had to stop for something like two or three laps near the end to clean it. Daytona, my first race, I was sixth, so yes, it went good. Obviously, still a lot to learn, but I think we have a good start.
Allaway: What will the rest of your schedule this year look like? A couple more ARCA races, a couple more in the Truck Series?
Piquet: We’re going to do three more Truck races, and hopefully one more Nationwide race, in Montreal.
Allaway: Would you be back here [Montreal] with Baker Curb Racing for the Nationwide race?
Piquet: I hope so.
Allaway: And for the three Truck races, back with Billy Ballew Motorsports?
Piquet: I’m not sure. It’s dependent on what deals we get with sponsors and stuff like that.
Allaway: You were talking about the transition to ovals. Since you grew up racing nothing but road courses, how has the transition to ovals been in general?
Piquet: As I said, it’s gone OK… lots to learn, though. I’m glad that I’m still young, so I’m learning a lot to some extent.
A lot of drivers that have arrived in NASCAR in their 40s — I’m sure that it’s much more difficult to learn after you’re 40 than it is in your 20s. I’m still getting to know the teams, and the racing is much different. Every time I go to the track, there is a lot to think about. [Oval racing] is far from being natural to me as opposed to going to a road course with a normal car. Still, I have to take my attention out of the driving only itself. For many of the drivers, they think its natural, it’s normal [to run on ovals]. They can concentrate only on the driving. For me, I still have to use my brain much more than other drivers.
Allaway: Coming in and doing one-off races is generally considered to be very difficult to do in any division. How has the communication been with the team at Baker Curb Racing?
Piquet: You only start to realize after a few days instead of just one or two days how well you’re going to click with a team or not. It takes a few days, a few races, then you can see how quick you’re going to develop with your driving, how well the crew chief is going to understand you.
In the phase that I’m in, I’m learning the tracks, learning the cars, learning the whole series in general — it doesn’t really matter. I know it’s better to do the whole full season, but in my stage, it’s not really a problem to do one race here and one race there just to learn about the different series, different teams, and different manufacturers.
Allaway: I noticed that Kurt Busch came up to your car during a practice session this weekend and poked his head in. Was he pumping you up, or was it just banter?
Piquet: Kurt’s a friend of mine, so he came to give me a few tips. I spoke to him Thursday by telephone and we don’t have the opportunity to speak much. We didn’t have a chance to talk this morning before practice, so he came over during practice to talk and see if I had any questions.
Allaway: In previous interviews, you have mentioned about wanting to help expand the reach of NASCAR back in Brazil. How would you go about doing that?
Piquet: Firstly, I need to do many races here, get good results, and as soon as I get good results, then there will be a lot of media coverage in Brazil. As soon as there is a lot of media coverage in Brazil, automatically, a lot of people are going to start following. We’re going to get TV stations to transmit the races there. Slowly, racers are going to start to find the right way to come into NASCAR.
The difficult thing for a driver down there is, if I want to be a NASCAR driver, how do I start it? If I make the path and it works, then I’m sure that other drivers are going to come and follow the same path. It would be the same as when Emerson Fittipaldi went to Formula 1. After Fittipaldi went, my father went and followed the same path. Once everything worked out well and both of them were in Formula1, everybody did the same thing — [Ayrton] Senna, [Rubens] Barrichello, everyone followed the same steps.
It is the way that it works. That is what I want to do; not only to make more Brazilians like NASCAR, but to bring more Brazilian drivers into NASCAR.
Allaway: What kind of exposure does NASCAR have in Brazil right now?
Piquet: Not much. It’s a sport that has had one or two Brazilians driving in it the last 20 years, so Brazilians would never really follow something like that. Also, with the ovals, people don’t understand. They think that it’s boring just because it’s an oval, but actually, a race can be more intense. The cars are closer to each other, side-by-side, banging wheels the whole time — it’s something that’s going to take a few years for Brazilians to start building interest [in]. I would say that it is at the same dimension that Formula 1 is here in the United States.
Allaway: I’d imagine that once there was some kind of rooting interest for the people in Brazil, that it could be quite popular. I don’t think it would ever be as popular as Formula 1 or even the domestic touring car series, Brazilian Stock Cars. But, at the very least, it could get into the public consciousness.
Piquet: It’s all dependent on the media exposure. If you get the main TV stations on board and put a few Brazilian guys here, then yes, it can become big. It all depends on if we can get the right media behind it. Maybe something equivalent to F1’s coverage on SPEED, or whatever channel covers it. Get a few American drivers in there, and it would be a little more interesting for the American viewers.