NASCAR fans, are you ready for the Earl Bamber Experience? The Xfinity Series’ newest driver is stock car racing’s equivalent of a twangy-voiced unicorn.
Born in New Zealand. Lives in Malaysia. Drives for Porsche. Defending IMSA GT champion. Two-time overall winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the warp-speed, alien-tech 919 Hybrid. It’s a recipe that suggests the 30-year-old Kiwi and the blue-collar world of NASCAR would never be a natural fit, but that’s where his unicorn status comes into play.
The path to driving for Richard Childress Racing Saturday on the Daytona road course involves one of many strange tales from Bamber. For those who know him, such stories are rarely in short supply from one of the sport’s most fascinatingly funny characters.
On his destiny to drive in NASCAR:
“This is a good story, actually — it goes back probably 13 years,” Bamber told RACER. “I met Richard Childress when he came hunting with my father in New Zealand. My dad does that for a living. So I met him there, and then he invited me to come to America. So just after they won the Daytona 500 in 2007 with Kevin Harvick, I came over here for a month. I went to Watkins Glen. It was my first NASCAR race. Then Harvick and Juan Montoya had a fight. So that was a pretty funny plane ride home with Richard, I can tell you that. Then we did some dirt track racing.
“He asked me one day, ‘Do you want to test?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure. I’d like to test.’ And I wasn’t allowed to test on the ovals because I was under 18. So he said, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to go Legends testing with Ty Dillon. So if you want to go drive, you can.’ We went up to what is now where Richard Petty Motorsports is, where they used to run their dirt cars and their Legends cars out of. And there was this Legends car without an engine in it. So he told me, ‘You’ve got a week to build your Legends car’ and then he’ll tow it down there and he’ll pay for it. So I said, ‘OK.’ But I don’t know s**t about putting stuff in cars… Only one of the oil lines fell off… So that was OK. Well, actually the only thing that fell off is something that I didn’t put on. So I was happy.
“We went to Lanier Speedway, across from Road Atlanta, and that was my first — well it’s my only time — I drove properly on an oval. I loved it. It was super cool. I almost crashed on the out-lap because I hit the brake too hard. Just a nasty thing. Then Richard goes, ‘Oh well, I wasn’t really interested if you could actually put the engine in or not.’ He was just curious if I really wanted to go racing. And ever since I was 17, we’ve been in touch and always watch them and kept in contact with them.”
On nearly making his NASCAR debut with RCR a few years ago:
“There was a chance — he managed to put something together and it was going to be a three-race deal. But someone on this side of things blocked it, so that was a bit of a shame. I introduced RCR to KCMG years ago and now finally managed to get inside one of the Xfinity cars. So, 13 years it took to finally drive in NASCAR. Some people think it just came out of the blue, but it actually hasn’t.”
On how his IMSA Porsche 911 RSR program leader Pascal Zurlinden is looking forward to a report on Bamber’s Xfinity drive:
“Interestingly enough, Pascal’s really keen on me doing the NASCAR stuff because all the possible crossovers of what they’re doing and what we do in GT racing. There’s already some stuff that they do — which is incredible — which we don’t do. There’s some stuff that they don’t have that we have. So it’s always really, really interesting.”
On getting settled in the No. 21 RCR Chevy Camaro:
“Since I won’t get practice time at Daytona, we’ve done a lot of prep work in the workshop, just getting comfortable in the seat, working all that stuff out. Me being me, I asked a billion questions about it. Why do you take it out of gear at the pit stop? Why do you do this? Or why do you do that? I get a lot of answers, like ‘That’s just NASCAR, don’t ask.
“Actually, to be honest, you hear these stories of NASCAR teams being very closed-shop and very hard to get into, but the guys have been great. The guys have been really awesome. The guys on the shop floor, they’ve been really cool, the guys that are building the car up. On that side, the prep’s gone well. I’ve even managed to put a 911 RSR pedal in the car.
“Yeah, because I didn’t like the brake pedal, so I’m like, ‘Can I put this Porsche one in?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
On being impressed with the management and precision he’s found at RCR:
“Their planning and execution is equal to what we do with the RSR program, which is impressive. Everyone always says that stock car racing and teams are archaic and stuff, but they’re not. The body fit men and the body builders are unreal. I’ve already seen the car run on the rolling road engine dyno. It’s been on the seven-post rig; they’re going to do some testing with the dampers and do all that stuff. I’ll probably have 20-24 hours total in the simulator before the race. And what they do in the simulator, they methodically follow up and check with everything that they can possibly check. There’s no team in Europe that’s got their own seven-post shaker rig in a workshop that knows what to do with it. People say they’re basic in NASCAR, but they’re not.”
On the challenge of firing into Turn 1 on Saturday with zero NASCAR driving experience:
“I love it. If you know me as a driver, it’s exactly what I like. (Porsche co-driver Laurens) Vanthoor has a really good story of me that year when he flipped at Macau when we were in different cars. Before he crashed, he said, ‘This idiot was flashing his lights at me, pushing like an animal on the out-lap already,’ which was me… So he let me by. And he was like, ‘For sure, he’s going to crash. He was right up against the walls, everywhere.’ But I didn’t. And I was faster. So he always winds me up because we have an out-lap competition each weekend in the Porsche. I was always taught from a kid to push on the out-laps just to get a feel quickly for what’s beneath you, and that’s the job here with RCR.
“I’ve driven so much weird stuff in my career that I think I’ll be all right. I think if you were a driver that’s only ever done single-seaters, or Cup, it would be hard. But I’ve raced two-liter front-wheel-drive Hondas. I’ve driven Trans Ams, V8 Supercars, all sorts of random stuff. I’ve even done world Time Attack. So I’m sure I’ll survive.”