WORDS BY PAUL HANAPHY | IMAGES BY GETTY IMAGES / WILLIAMS F1
Two months on from Jenson Button’s NASCAR debut, big question marks still linger over how much recruiting former Formula 1 stars is helping the series reach new fans.
Back in March, F1’s 2009 world champion made his bow in the NASCAR Cup Series at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), qualifying 24th and finishing 18th. Button’s performance was all the more impressive considering he started two places behind 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen and finished 11 places ahead, despite the Finn having already raced in the series earlier in the season.
With F1’s audience being so heavily skewed towards Europe, it’s easy to see why bringing some of the series’ old guns to the US would be an attractive marketing move. In fact, as they made their respective NASCAR debuts, social media was full of fans cheering on the drivers of yesteryear, while they pounded around the COTA tarmac, just as they used to.
However, it would be a mistake to call Button and Räikkönen’s outings an unqualified success. After all, neither competed at the front of the field. While likely to wear off if other F1 drivers make the same step into NASCAR, the novelty around their involvement also raises wider questions about why the series might be more aggressively targeting European fans.
Of course, the Euro Series has long served this purpose, but with the audience for last season’s NASCAR Cup Series finale dropping 64%, it could be argued that the series is now targeting new fans to compensate. However, getting European fans onboard with NASCAR continues to prove tricky. Western European F1 followers have become used to races being scheduled in time slots that suit them - this hasn’t happened with NASCAR.
Another potential hurdle facing NASCAR’s ambitions is driver recruitment. No doubt ‘Kimi’ and ‘JB’ bring an army of supporters with them, but it has been a while since they were the class of the F1 field. If the cream of the crop could be tempted to US shores, that would bring an entirely different dimension to the series’ appeal, though it’s tricky to see how this would materialise.
Ahead of his debut, Button himself told Racer how “ovals didn’t excite him so much,” and the fact NASCAR was “so different to what he was used to” meant he didn’t consider the switch earlier in his career. With so much overlap between race weekends, It’s also questionable whether F1 drivers could plausibly race in multiple series. Gone are the days of Jim Clark and Graham Hill racing in F1 before jetting off to compete in the Indy 500.
That’s not to say you can’t leave F1 altogether and make a success of things across the pond. The likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve have shown that it’s very much possible, but neither was enjoying a good spell when they left F1. The same can be said of Fernando Alonso’s attempts to win the Indy 500, which took place at a time when McLaren were backmarkers, and one outing even saw him miss the Monaco Grand Prix.
So, for NASCAR, recruiting F1 fans and drivers would be no mean feat. But it’s not the only series trying to expand its reach. F1 itself is trying to grow its audience in the US - it now has three grand prix in the country - and in Logan Sargeant, it also has an American driver again.
As such, it’s entirely logical for NASCAR to want to reach new territories, and it’s far from the only race series trying to do so. It just may need to take a leaf out of F1’s playbook, which has seen it steadily Americanise for its target audience, if it’s going to achieve that.
Whatever the future of NASCAR, fans of the series can catch Button’s next two outings at the first-ever Chicago Street Race in early-July, and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in mid-August.