NASCAR has devoted a lot of energy to introducing itself to new audiences across the U.S. — and it appears that message has traveled around the world.
When fans tune into Watkins Glen International on Sunday (3 p.m.), they’ll see a record seven nationalities represented in the Cup race’s field of drivers. The race will feature drivers from Mexico, Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Finland, England and the United States.
The robust international field that will compete on the storied road course in New York is another example of NASCAR’s growth.
“I know and have known for a long time that there is significant global interest among the elite motorsport drivers of the world in participating in a NASCAR race,” TrackHouse Racing owner Justin Marks told reporters in a Zoom availability last week. “It’s a unique series. People in Europe and around the world look at NASCAR as this giant form of Motorsports in America, which it is, and have an interest in trying it.”
NASCAR has done a lot to reach into new markets as of late. Racetracks that have been on the regular-season circuit for decades are now “fighting for their lives.” There’s a renewed emphasis on road course racing. In 2021, the regular season featured seven road courses — five more than the year before that — and that emphasis hasn’t gone away, particularly with the addition of the Chicago street race in 2023.
And amid all this change and innovation, interest in NASCAR among drivers around the world has blossomed.
Marks and TrackHouse Racing will be at the center of Sunday’s international affair. THR fields Daniel Suarez, the full-time Cup Series driver born in Monterrey, Mexico, who’s had a great Cup season. His win at Sonoma in June helped secure him a playoff spot in a remarkably deep field.
THR is also the home team for Kimi Raikkonen of Espoo, Finland, who’ll be making his Cup Series debut this weekend. Raikkonen made his name in the F1 circuit over the past two decades and was the sport’s 2007 champion.
Raikkonen is being brought on by Marks for his company’s launch of “Project91” — which is essentially an effort to bring in some of the biggest names in motorsports around the world to specific Cup Series races, and to have them race for THR and be competitive.
The goal of Project91 is to cash in on that aforementioned global interest among drivers, and in turn to build one of the “really compelling and interesting motorsports programs in America,” Marks said.
Raikkonen’s presence on Sunday certainly legitimizes the project’s launch.
What do drivers think he will do for Sunday’s race in particular?
“I think, especially with Kimi being in a really good car, (that he) should adapt very well,” Larson told reporters on Thursday. He added, “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to race against somebody like that who’s strictly just basically road-raced his whole life. I don’t know if there’s a Formula 1 Hall of Fame, but he’ll probably be in it someday. And just to see how you stack up with somebody like that. I know it’s a totally different race car, but his experience level is way more than mine on a road course.”
Said Chris Buescher: “It’s pretty neat to have so many different drivers from so many different parts of the world participating this weekend. I think that road course racing brings out more and more of the drivers from different areas and different drivers of motorsports, and I think that we’re going to have a really competitive field.”
The other four drivers not born in the U.S. are Kyle Tilley of England, Daniil Kvyat of Russia, Loris Hezemans of Holland and Mike Rockenfeller of Germany.