Oct 1, 2007
We've already done the joke about where Osama bin Laden is probably hiding -- in the field of an Indy Racing League or Champ Car race. No one will ever see him there. But now, if Osama does actually decided to join either race series, he wouldn't have much cover. Name drivers are ditching open-wheel racing for NASCAR in record numbers, which just shows you how the worm has turned in the world of motor racing. It used to be that NASCAR was strictly the beer-and-peanuts league, while open-wheel was champagne and caviar. These days, though, drivers with foreign-sounding names are appearing in places like Darlington and Martinsville with amazing regularity.
The most recent convert is Dario Franchitti, the current IRL champion, who is turning his back on all the glory that entails by making the jump to the Chip Ganassi Racing team next season. In what will be called the "Sprint Cup" series next year, he will join fellow open-wheel luminaries Jacques Villeneuve and Buddy Lazier. Villeneuve is certainly no stranger to the champagne-and-caviar circuits, having captured championships in both CART racing (remember that?) and Formula One. If not champagne and caviar, Lazier has at least tasted milk, because he, like Villeneuve, is a former Indianapolis 500 winner. The pioneer of this migration is Juan Pablo Montoya, who abandoned a Formula One career (such as it was) to join this season's Nextel Cup series. Since doing so, he has nabbed some creditable results and also engendered the enmity of several of his fellow drivers.
So what is driving (if you should pardon the expression) these highly regarded foreign shoes to eschew the glamour and prestige of open-wheel careers for the fried chicken circuit. Can you say, "money"?
While interest in open-wheel racing in America has tumbled since the long-ago CART/IRL rift, the interest in NASCAR racing has grown and remains strong. That means serious sponsor money, and that, in turn, means serious money for talented drivers. No one is claiming that these open-wheel guys are going to head straight to the top of the pack, but if you made your living behind the wheel of a racecar, NASCAR is both a reassuring and lucrative place to be.
Get in touch with your host, Jack Nerad, the head honcho of Driving Today.Go>>