MARTINSVILLE, Va._ Rumors were confirmed Saturday morning as Kyle Busch Motorsports announced they have signed former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen to drive a limited schedule in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starting May 20 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a second KBM truck.
“We are honored that Kimi Raikkonen, a former Formula One World Drivers’ Champion and proven winner, has chosen to start his career in NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports,” Busch said. “Adding one of the most talented drivers in the world is a continuation of building a team of proven winners and champions at KBM. I look forward to assisting in Kimi’s transition to NASCAR as both an owner and teammate.”
That transition will begin on Monday, when KBM will hold a closed test at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia. Busch will not be in attendance and the session will be closed to the media.
In the nine years Raikkonen spent on the F1 circuit, he recorded 18 wins, 62 podium finishes and was the 2007 champion. Raikkonen left F1 after the 2009 season and has been competing in the World Rally Car Championship since.
“I am really excited to have the opportunity to start my venture into NASCAR with Kyle Busch Motorsports,” Raikkonen said in a team release. “Kyle is one of the best in NASCAR, and being able to draw on his knowledge will be a valuable asset as I make my transition to a new form of racing. He has put together an experienced team that builds fast race trucks. I look forward to being a part of a team that has proven to be a winner on and off the race track.”
Discussing the announcement Saturday in Martinsville, Busch explained the deal came together over a relatively short period of time – his estimate was 15 days – and the current plan is to have Raikkonen run three to five races for KBM. He added there are three sponsors already involved, but would not reveal who they were.
“Right now it’s only Charlotte,” Busch said. “We’ll see how he feels about Charlotte. He did express interest in running up to three, up to five.”
The decision to run Charlotte as his first race simply came down to Raikkonen’s schedule. Busch said Charlotte would certainly be a tough place for Raikkonen to start his NASCAR career, but explained the track was a bit more forgiving for the Truck Series.
“They actually picked Charlotte,” Busch said. “For whatever reason, they were adamant about running that race. I don’t know if he feels he wants the challenge right off the bat, but I feel it will be good for him.
“I think Charlotte is a difficult track, it’s certainly not easy,” he added. “It’s a little bit easier in the trucks than you think. You’re essentially wide-open running around there, so you do have to find some throttle modulation in the long run and the tires wear out and you get either loose or tight, however it works out. I think it will be fine for him to learn on and get his feet wet.”
In only its second year as a team, KBM won the 2010 owners championship, has 10 wins – including two of the first three races this year – and has been able to solidify its place among the best organizations in the Camping World Truck Series. The team has now used that success to secure up one of the biggest names in open-wheel racing.
“I think our organization is very strong, and I think a lot of people would say the same thing,” Busch said. “We feel we’ve got a really good team and have a really good foundation for what we’ve got and what we’ve built on in the last year now. We’ve had a lot of good talks with a lot of different people; we’ve just never been able to close on anything when it comes down to the money issue. They’re like, ‘Well, this team will do it for cheaper.’ I say, ‘Ok, go to them and see how good you’re going to run.’ When you are running the way we’re running and you’ve won two of the three races in the series you can demand a little bit of a higher price because, ultimately, we have a few more people and do things a little bit differently that is a little bit more expensive, but essentially that gives you results.
"It’s nice to put together a program here with Kimi that he wants to do and he feels like he can grab the same success here at Kyle Busch Motorsports.”
DeLana Harvick explained on her Twitter account Saturday that Kevin Harvick Inc., which fields trucks for former F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr., passed on the opportunity to hire Raikkonen, saying, “No doubt Kimi is talented & will be great for NASCAR, but with all KHI has going on now & some upcoming projects we did what was best for KHI.”
This deal marks the third former F1 driver that has made the jump to NASCAR, following Piquet Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya. While F1 is often considered one of the top motorsports in the world, the current flux of former drivers coming to NASCAR shows the sport may have a larger audience than given credit.
“[NASCAR] is a lot higher than people think it is. I think people here are underrated at our level against worldwide,” Montoya said. “I think maybe if you would get the numbers of how many people internationally are watching these races not only in America but in Europe and Asia, I think you would shock yourself. I think they are pretty amazing.
“People in Formula One are very selfish,” he added. “They think there is nothing better out there. You look from technology wise, there’s not. But the actual racing, this is exciting. It’s exciting to watch, it’s exciting to be here. When you hear about ovals and sometimes you watch them, the first time you watch it by yourself, oh yeah it’s a circle. But if you come and actually see how fast we’re going in real life, they go oh yeah that’s a lot faster than people think it is.”
One of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, Jeff Gordon is a fan of the European open-wheel series and encouraged by the interest of their drivers.
“On the one hand I think that’s awesome, I’m a big Formula One fan and I admire Kimi, he’s got a lot of talent,” Gordon said. “I can’t believe it – I couldn’t believe it when Juan Pablo made that announcement.
“I think it says a lot about NASCAR that somebody like him is considering coming here,” Gordon added. “I admire him for wanting him to take the step to go Truck racing and not just jumping in a Cup car. Obviously the word is out there to the best drivers in the world, if you think you’re just going to come here and jump into a Cup car and be competitive, you’re kidding yourself. I think that’s pretty cool about our sport and that we’re drawing in this international group of talent.”