NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Anthony Kumpen on NASCAR in Europe, Nephew Max Verstappen

 

Daytona International Speedway is quite the warm welcome for a new racing season.

For Anthony Kumpen, 2017 is a year of hope and a year of progression in his NASCAR XFINITY Series career. After finishing a career-best 22nd in the season-opener at Daytona in February, the Belgian driver will steer his focus towards his fourth full-time NASCAR Whelen Euro Series season and his next XFINITY race come Mid-Ohio in August.

Additionally, the 38-year-old will continue to keep a close eye on his nephew Max Verstappen, the 19-year-old Formula 1 star who will return with Red Bull Racing in 2017.

Frontstretch sat down with the two-time Euro Series champion to chat about the growth of the European circuit, his plans in the XFINITY Series and his relationship with an F1 race-winning nephew.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: You’re back here at Daytona, your second time. What are your thoughts right now?

Anthony Kumpen: Really happy to be back. Last year, everything was new for me. It was my first time on a superspeedway, so being here for the second time, you know what’s coming up. I’ve worked with the team for several races now. I’m really happy to be here, I’m really looking forward to the race.

Last year during practice, the only thing we could work on was my driving. Now, we can work on the setup of the car so it will be an exciting event.

Catanzareti: It’s been a while since you’ve been in one of these cars. When it comes to figuring out how to drive these things, plate racing, I bet that is so different than anything you’ve done before.

Kumpen: Exactly. My background is from road racing. Back in Europe in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, we do half the races on road courses, half on ovals, but the fastest oval we have is a half-mile. So, coming here to a superspeedway, drafting, going at these speeds, it’s something completely different.

It’s exciting, last year I learned a lot and I hope to take that experience now this year and make a good result.

Catanzareti: Were you more nervous last year, not knowing what you’re getting into, or this year, now that you know what you’re in for?

Kumpen: No, I’m a bit less nervous. Last year was really tough, so many new things. Everything is coming up, it’s already very impressive when you just come here as a driver. I didn’t know that track, the car. Now, that is more easy because I know the handling, how to talk to the crew chief and the team. We are better prepared.

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An overheating issue ended Anthony Kumpen’s Daytona night early. (Photo: John K Harrelson / NKP)

When you come here, it’s a big event, you’re always a bit nervous. But last year was tough and I hope this year goes better.

Catanzareti: What is it about the XFINITY Series? Why are you here, why is this the series that interests you?

Kumpen: When I started in NASCAR in Europe in 2014, the series was there for two years. I started off racing in Europe and 10 years ago, it was not possible for a European driver to become a NASCAR driver in Europe. Then when you step into into NASCAR in Europe, you want to grow and go to higher levels. The XFINITY Series is perfect.

When I won the championship in 2014, we made a program to next year run Daytona. We did all the steps so I could get my approval to come here. I did some K&N races, XFINITY races up until we got to a level where I was allowed to take part here at Daytona. Now, we want to step up the level to become a better driver.

I’m sure on the road courses, we will be very strong. Last year, Alon Day, who is also in our championship and finished third, he did really well at Mid-Ohio, at one point was running top five. I will be doing Mid-Ohio, I’m really excited also to do a road course in these XFINITY cars, so it’s going to be an exciting year.

Catanzareti: Within the next year or two, do you think you’ll be ready for a full-time XFINITY season? A long year of racing but would you be interested in that?

Kumpen: That will be the goal. This year, I’m definitely combining the Euro Series with some XFINITY races. I’ll try to do more in August, we have a summer break in Europe, so I will try to work on the program to make more August races. Then our season ends in October, so we could do more races at the end of the XFINITY season.

Our goal is to work hard, get a full seat for the championship next year in XFINITY Series.

Catanzareti: Talk about the Euro Series. You’ve been in there for a few years, won championships. How have you been gelling with the tracks, the cars, the people? It seems like a completely different world, but it’s still NASCAR.

Kumpen: The series has been growing fast. When I stepped in, in 2014, if you compare to where we are now, it’s a different world. There’s a lot of interest from the fans, for example, our event in Great Britain in Brands Hatch was sold out three months in advance. That’s something that rarely happens for a race in Europe. Even Formula 1 cannot sell out events.

That’s fantastic, the series is growing. There are a lot of good, experienced drivers coming in, and young drivers who are really talented. The mix is getting there. We now have Alex Caffi, who is an ex-F1 driver, he will be full-time next season. We have Marc Goossens, who finished third in the 24 hours of Daytona.

So, we have a good mix of experienced drivers and young drivers. It’s the fastest growing series in Europe. We get a lot of fans at the track. The only thing that is different is that we don’t have so many oval tracks in Europe. They are building more, there is a new one coming up in Germany.

We’re going next year to Hockenheim. In Europe, the top country in racing, we’re going to Hockenheim and they don’t have Formula 1. So, the big tracks are getting interested in NASCAR and that’s really good.

I’m very close with the organizer and NASCAR is helping us out a lot. I think it has a great future ahead.

Catanzareti: Bringing the Euro Series and connecting it with NASCAR here in the States. How important is it to get people from Europe, drivers, fans, and get into NASCAR? You, Alon Day, you’re coming over and racing here. How important is that for you and the diversity of the sport?

Kumpen: I think it’s really important as well for us. For a driver who comes into the Euro Series, they want to step up and come to do NASCAR here. Perfect example is Daniel Suarez. He came from the Mexico series and he’s now driving Cup three years later.

It’s also good for NASCAR, because they go global. They gain interest from fans in Mexico, now from Europe. That’s what we want. We want to help globalize the sport and I think NASCAR in Europe can be very helpful. For drivers, the program it created having drivers coming over here, supported from NASCAR and the sponsors, I get a budget from the Euro Series to come race here. That’s something that’s really important, and that will get young drivers interested in NASCAR and not only Formula 1.

Catanzareti: In that series, what would you call your favorite win?

Kumpen: That was last year at Italy. It was the semi-finals, it was a tight battle between Alon Day and Frederic Gabillon, a French driver. Semi-finals, double points, the race was really important and we all knew that. Even though we are competitors, we talk a lot and we were saying that whoever wins the first semi-final will be a big step into the championship.

There was a lot of pressure. In the end, I won the race. What was also special was that it was at Zolder, my home track. I live around 10 miles from the track. Two or three weeks ahead of the event, Jeff Gordon dropped me a mail [saying] ‘I will be coming to visit you at the finals.’

Having one of the biggest legends in NASCAR handing me over the championship trophy was something I will never forget.

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Anthony Kumpen has seven wins in the Whelen Euro Series. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Catanzareti: I see that was the cover photo on your Facebook page, so it was a big deal!

Kumpen: It was amazing. Jeff’s wife, she is from my town. I’ve met them a few times here and in Europe. When we said he would come over for the finals, the pressure was only up. I was even more stressed out but it was great having him there. It gave us great international coverage and he spent a long time on our final race. He helps to grow our series and that’s fantastic.

Catanzareti: You have a tight connection with F1 — you’re racing at Hockenheimring next summer. What other F1 tracks have you raced on in the Euro Series?

Kumpen: F1 used to be a Brands Hatch but not anymore, Zolder in the 1980s. We try to go on the smaller tracks and F1 wants to have big ones. For us, the races are more exciting when the tracks are smaller. That’s why we don’t go on all the F1 tracks. I know NASCAR was also at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. But the racing is more exciting on the smaller tracks and that’s why we don’t visit many F1 tracks.

I’m sure in the future we will have to go to the bigger tracks that attract a lot of people. They are the tracks that have a lot of sponsorships and that can help grow the series. For sure, we will be on more F1 tracks in the future.

Catanzareti: You’re the uncle of Max Verstappen. He had a tremendous Formula 1 season last year. What has that been like for you? You know him so well. Why was last year special for you?

Kumpen: It was really special because his first win was in Barcelona. When he had that race, it was his first for Red Bull when he stepped up from Toro Rosso. Actually, I had a race in Holland, we were racing with the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. That’s a big place where there are many Dutch fans coming to watch our race.

But all together, with the drivers, we watched the finish of the F1 race which was a little later than our finish. To see him win there with the Dutch crowd, it was amazing.

I’ve known him since he was a baby. What he did was incredible. He stepped into Formula 1 at 17 years old but he’s very talented. His dad was in F1, he helped him out a lot. Me and his dad raced in go karts when we were teenagers so I’ve known him for a very long time. Obviously, [Max’s] mother I know very well because she’s my family.

Having a kid that you saw grow up, I saw all the steps in go karts and everything he did. And now seeing him race in F1 and seeing him win there, doing all the things he’s doing.

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Anthony Kumpen finished 28th in his XFINITY debut at Iowa in 2015, his first of three races that year. (Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

What he is doing is really bringing another dimension to F1 because his way of racing is really aggressive, something F1 needed. Everybody was saying this 17-year-old doesn’t belong and he showed that he does. It’s a very difficult sport because there are only 20 places there in the world.

As far as it being family, it’s been really special, sometimes even emotional.

But when everyone starts saying those things, eh, you start doubting a little bit. That’s where he did well. He never doubted himself and he stepped up his game.

Catanzareti: How often do you see Max?

Kumpen: Last year, I saw him only once and that was at Spa for the F1 race. The years before, I saw him every month. We actually didn’t live too far from each other but know he’s living further away. He’s racing all the time, and I’m traveling a lot for my racing.

We don’t have time to see each other anymore. He cannot make extra time and I cannot make extra time. But I follow everything he’s doing. Sometimes, we send texts, Twitter. I’m really happy for him. He’s making a great job.

Catanzareti: Did you ever want to race F1 yourself? Were you ever eying F1?

Kumpen: When you start as a young driver in Europe, everyone eyes Formula 1. I started formula racing at 16 years old. It’s really difficult. For sure, being a Belgian driver, there is not much racing heritage. If you are from the United Kingdom or Germany, there is a lot. I think even when I was 16, I was not allowed to race in Belgium. So, I went to Germany to race there.

Even though I won many races my first season, finished third in the championship in Formula Renault, I won the World Finals, there were not many good opportunities to go into a good team for Formula 3. Then I got an opportunity to drive for Porsche in Belgium. So, I was like ‘OK, lets go that direction.’

F1 is really difficult to get into. This year it’s only 20 places for all those drivers in the world. It’s not the easiest sport to get into.

[Below is a video capture of our conversation with Anthony Kumpen.]

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