CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — Kimi Raikkonen retired to Switzerland at the end of last year’s Formula One season and has happily spent the last eight months with his young family.
Did you miss the races?
“Not really, no,” said the 2007 F1 champion.
Yet here it is, not even a year after his retirement, and Raikkonen will be racing again.
Raikkonen will race Sunday at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York in a NASCAR event, and this is not a typo. The driver known as “The Iceman” for his unintentionally funny behavior was persuaded to get back behind the wheel by TrackHouse Racing and he was ambitious and driven by purpose. Project program91.
Project91 was created to raise NASCAR’s global profile with top drivers from other formulas by Justin Marks, the 41-year-old former driver and now co-owner of NASCAR’s new winning team. He was prepared to personally finance the debut race at Watkins Glen, a road course where TrackHouse was due to compete for the win.
At the top of Marks’ prospect list was Raikkonen, who had previously competed in both an Xfinity Series and Truck Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway over one weekend in 2011, the season Raikkonen was he took a sabbatical from his 19-year F1 career. There was some bewilderment over Raikkonen’s mere presence in the NASCAR hotbed, but the most memorable part of his brief NASCAR career was that he was sponsored by Perky Jerky.
Still, Raikkonen was interested when he first submitted this offer from NASCAR. Marks then sealed the deal in February by traveling to Raikkonen’s home in Switzerland to present his in-person introduction to the Finnish driver.
“He had to find someone who would give him immediate legitimacy and who was interested in doing it. And for me, very quickly, it was Kimi,” Marks said. “The genesis of Project91 was just my desire as a racing fan to see cool things happen in racing. A Formula One driver coming into NASCAR and being competitive at the Cup level is a great thing and if we were going to launch this, obviously we needed someone globally relevant to get it off the ground.”
Marks has not disclosed how much it cost to sign Raikkonen for a race; he once joked that the trip to Switzerland was “expensive” and last week he said Raikkonen was paid a million dollars before insisting he was joking.
Either way, the No. 91 Chevy chose two backers to pay for Project91’s share in Recogni and iLOQ, a couple of tech companies.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Raikkonen, 42, admitted that he casually follows NASCAR and has been intrigued by the stock car series for more than a decade. He had hoped to also drive a Cup Series race in 2011, but that never happened and he returned to F1, where he won the last three of his 21 career victories over the following decade.
Raikkonen was intrigued by both NASCAR and his new Next Gen-spec car, which debuted this year and equaled the competition among the top elite teams, including, well, the garage’s new TrackHouse Racing. TrackHouse has three Cup wins in its second season and both Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez are qualified for the playoffs.
“I think whenever there’s an equal chance of winning in a series it’s nice, I think it’s good, and what I heard when I talked to people about the new car is that it’s pretty even with everyone,” Raikkonen told AP. “It’s still a learning phase for all the teams with the new car.”
This project was announced in May, long before TrackHouse was officially considered a good championship-caliber team, but Raikkonen said Marks talked him into it during their meeting. Marks’ entry into the Raikkonen household was through a close mutual friend.
Even as he toured the world on the F1 calendar in the 10 years since his foray into two NASCAR races, Raikkonen always kept an eye on the series. So he knew a new car was coming when he met with Marks, who said he “was very honest” about his intentions for the program and TrackHouse’s capabilities.
“I think he came in as a very honest and direct guy and nobody promised anything big,” Raikkonen said. “The only thing we can do is do our best and hope to get a good result. You never know, whatever category or race you choose, you just never know what’s going to happen. So I trusted what he was saying and they’ve done pretty well. In NASCAR, it can happen easily.”
Raikkonen said he has received several offers to race in the last eight months, but Marks’s is the only one “so far that I’ve said yes.”
He’s excited in part because he gets to do something completely new and experience it with his wife and two young children, who have filled his time in retirement. He said that finally having a traditional schedule has made it possible to extend family time and spend a summer on vacation in Europe.
He brought “The Ice Cubes” to the United States after spending three days with TrackHouse in the shop, the Chevrolet simulator, and then a NASCAR-approved test at Virginia International Raceway. The family was reunited in New York City and will travel upstate this weekend to prepare for Sunday’s race.
His seven-year-old son now competes in both go-karts and motocross, but he said his five-year-old daughter has less interest in the sport. He wasn’t quite sure what they know about NASCAR.
“I haven’t asked them, they will figure it out,” Raikkonen said.
Project91 hopes to give international drivers the opportunity to race designated Cup races and seven countries, a NASCAR record, will be represented on Sunday. It is in keeping with Project91’s concept to open up opportunities for international drivers curious about the premier motorsports series in the United States.
“I’m pretty sure there will be some phone calls to Justin already,” Raikkonen said of interested drivers. In fact, Marks has had early talks with Helio Castroneves, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who wants to run next year’s Daytona 500; Marks has said that Project91 must complete its debut run before he can fully discuss future events.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for drivers from Europe because it’s not very easy to come from Europe to the United States to race,” Raikkonen said. “People can have challenges and maybe they can come here and have a long future because it’s a good sport. I think it’s great what Justin is doing.”
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