NASCAR Cup Series
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Jun 30, 2022
Formula 1 legend Kimi Räikkönen had nothing to lose in making his Cup Series debut under the Project91 banner while Trackhouse Racing team owner Justin Marks altruistically has everything to gain for global motorsports as a whole.
It was a no-brainer for both racers, results this weekend at Watkins Glen International be damned and their optimism aside.
Project91 is best described as a concept program. It’s a third, part-time car fielded by the organization with the intent of providing champions from other international disciplines a good faith opportunity to compete in the highest level of NASCAR.
It’s the very definition of Next Gen from a content and marketing standpoint.
Marks expects the No. 91 car to race at all the road courses next season with a variety of legendary names, and maybe a handful of legacy oval events like the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600.
"It's a brand extension of Trackhouse," Marks said during a press event on Saturday morning at Watkins Glen. "I think we can create great content and merchandise and tell great stories. That's where I would like to see it go."
It all begins with Räikkönen, the 2007 Formula 1 World Champion, and to date the last driver to win a championship for Scuderia Ferrari. Räikkönen is also a noted NASCAR enthusiast, and one who made Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series starts for Kyle Busch Motorsports and NEMCO Motorsports at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2011.
Again, it made sense for Marks to start this project with both an A-list racing star, but also one who had obvious enthusiasm for the discipline.
It began last year, when Marks first pitched the Project91 concept to Räikkönen. They revisited it a couple of months later when Marks flew to Switzerland to formalize an agreement.
"I just think everything worked out well," Räikkönen said. "It made sense. I wanted to do a little bit of racing. The timing was right, kids are on holiday from school so we could come as a family for the trip and have a holiday. All those small things here and there, and they've been good this year and (Trackhouse) winning races, it's a chance to come out here and do okay.
"Whether we do or not, I will try my best."
An update to the NASCAR rule book in June permitted approved drivers from other categories to test a non-affiliated prototype Next Gen car for preparation purposes. It is effectively the Project91 rule. But teams, like Trackhouse, are not allowed to record data and the session is for the express purpose of allowing drivers like Räikkönen to establish a baseline.
With that said, Räikkönen only has those introductory laps at Virginia International Raceway and Saturday’s practice and qualifying sessions to prepare for the race. For a racer that has excelled in everything he has ever driven, a one-off Cup Series appearance could be interpreted as a risk to his legacy at first blush, not that the appropriately nicknamed Iceman views it that way.
"I don’t see any risk. Why not?” Räikkönen said. "What do I have to lose? That I‘ve done bad in a NASCAR race or bad in any race? I don’t care. I do it for myself. Good or bad result, it could happen even if I did 20 races. They all could be bad for many different reasons.
"I don’t see anything negative. I think it’s great."
Marks sold Räikkönen on the vision of Project91, which was just icing on the cake for something he has wanted to do for well over a decade in making a start at the highest level of NASCAR.
"Justin and the team is (giving racers from Europe) a chance," Räikkönen said. "I’m sure there (are) a lot of drivers that would like to have a chance and try, but it’s not very easy. So maybe it opens some doors that in future there’s more chances to try to get more Europeans in NASCAR."
Marks said Watkins Glen was the ideal launching pad for Project91 because it was deep enough into the season that Trackhouse could prepare the car without it interfering with their upcoming playoff push with Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez.
The team hasn't hired any additional personnel for the car either. But most importantly, Marks is aware of the history at Watkins Glen and also views it as a more straightforward race than some of the other more dramatic road courses from earlier in the season.
"There's a lot of history and the fan base is huge so there's typically a huge spotlight on this place because of the quality of racing," Marks said. "And it's a track where if he learns the car in the race, you can make passes.
"This place doesn't get Mickey Mousey like Indy and some other courses do. A lot of factors that just made it kind of an idea place."
With that said, Räikkönen is prepared to trade paint with the elite of NASCAR if it comes down to it. After all, it’s NASCAR.
"I think any motorsport has contact, but obviously when you have a single seater car, you try to avoid it more because you will damage the wing and then your race is compromised," Räikkönen said. "Stock car racing, that is more forgiving because obviously it doesn't affect that much. Obviously, we try to stay out of it, but there might be some, might not. It's a part of racing so ..."
Räikkönen doesn’t have any additional plans to compete in NASCAR after this and says he just wants to have a positive experience. Again, this is something he has mentioned wanting to do for well over a decade.
And his team owner this weekend believes he can impress under the right circumstances.
"The speed is going to be there, the preparation is going to be there, the fitness is going to be there," Marks said. "I think where the heavy lifting is going to be is just having no drama on the restarts or on pit road.
"If we do all that, I think anything is possible. We have to have a good strategy and he has to run a good race but what we learned at the test, and what he's shown us at the sim, I don't have any questions about the pace. If we do a good job for him as a team, I think we could have a very good day."