Crossover Stars Help NASCAR’s Fan Appeal

NASCAR needs more crossover stars. It’s a time-honored tradition in the sport to bring in drivers from across the pond (mostly on NASCAR’s dime) and put them in our cars not only to perform but to draw in the fans. This is usually met with success more on the fan side of things, although former F1 drivers Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya did find a bit of success in NASCAR.

Lewis Hamilton’s comments to TMZ regarding a foray in NASCAR have been given a bit of levity considering how his 2018 season has gone without a win, not to mention he has yet to finalize any plans beyond 2018. Hamilton has been vocal in the past regarding his love for American motorsports as well as a possible NASCAR venture, and considering he’s the closest thing to a mainstream A-list celebrity the racing world has, it’s easy to imagine the NASCAR brass salivating at the idea of Hamilton in a competitive car at Daytona. It’s not impossible to imagine NASCAR possibly even footing some of the bill to bring him.

It’s had its pitfalls before, though. Two-time Formula One champion Jim Clark and Ludovico Scarfiotti were entered in the 1967 American 500 at Rockingham. Although Scarfiotti, winner of the 1966 Italian Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1963, did not compete due to his time being disallowed, Clark was able to bring his Holman-Moody Ford up into the top-15 before mechanical failure knocked him out of the race.

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Another Formula One champion, Kimi Raikkonen, competed at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s May 2011 Speedweeks in the Camping World Truck Series race as well as the Nationwide Series race. Raikkonen, the 2007 World Champion (and arguably one of F1’s most enigmatic personalities), drove for Kyle Busch Motorsports in both events, scoring a 15th-place finish in the truck race while finishing four laps down in 27th during the Nationwide race.

Both instances had a lot of fanfare from across the racing world, and although they ended in less-than-stellar fashions, that hasn’t always been the case. Montoya won three races across the three national touring divisions in NASCAR. Andretti became a Daytona 500 winner for Holman-Moody in 1967. Nelson Piquet Jr. won two truck races and a Nationwide event.

It’s been more than just an F1-to-NASCAR crossover. In 2017, two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso made his IndyCar debut at the Indianapolis 500, where he piloted an Andretti-Herta Autosport entry to Rookie-of-the-Race honors. Alonso managed to lead several laps and appeared in contention to win before an engine failure sidelined his Honda. The fanfare was so great it even garnered attention in the NASCAR world, where NASCAR-to-IndyCar and vice versa are not uncommon; NASCAR has seen its own Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart, and John Andretti make the Indy 500-Coke 600 double multiple times over the years.

In 2008, on the heels of Formula One standout and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya winning the 2007 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie-of-the-Year with one win, three top-fives, and six top-10s, IndyCar champions Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti ventured into NASCAR with hopes of success. They dominated the storylines early in the season as part of the “Open-Wheel Invasion” despite struggling, and Franchitti dropped out halfway through the season while Hornish is now a part-time Xfinity Series competitor with a handful of wins.

Even Danica Patrick’s move from IndyCar to NASCAR was fruitless overall, although she was one of the faces of the sport and spent her entire career in top-caliber equipment.

It’d be easy to become jaded at the prospect of a crossover star coming to NASCAR, admittedly so. When has one actually set the sport on fire other than Tony Stewart, the 1997 Indy Racing League champion? Even those who have found success have received it in short bursts. Ultimately, it’s a matter of experience – more seat time means more success unless you’re a racing anomaly like Andretti or Montoya. But the buildup, the hype, the suspense of a driver who may be established elsewhere making the dive into another major motorsport, i.e., NASCAR, is noteworthy to the brass. Fans and media get especially excited, PR people go all out and come race day it’s almost certain that the Next Big Thing has arrived.

Should NASCAR invest into another crossover star (training, seat time, equipment, so on), it could help bolster attendance and ratings issues, same with IndyCar and F1. The day can and will come when a crossover driver is discovered and happens to truly be the Next Big Thing.

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