Jenson Button might be a world-renowned Formula 1 champion, but stock cars have intrigued him for quite some time.
“For a very long time, I’ve watched NASCAR. A couple of decades,” Button said. “Growing up in the UK, we had four channels on TV back in the late ’80s, and we didn’t get any real sport outside of European sport. It was actually ‘Days of Thunder’ that first brought me to NASCAR because it was the first time I got to see any NASCAR.
“It was a movie, so as an 8-year-old, I thought it was insane. I thought it was amazing. Worlds away from European motorsport. But that got me in the door of liking NASCAR, and I used to watch it with my old man.”
Button now gets to try his hand at NASCAR competition with three road course races for Rick Ware Racing. Button will make his debut later this month at Circuit of The Americas in the No. 15 Ford with Mobil 1 support before also competing at the Chicago street course and the Indianapolis road course.
“It’s so different than what I’m used to and I think that’s probably what stopped me asking the question of whether I’d be able to race in NASCAR,” Button explained. “And also, back then, it was more ovals. That didn’t excite me so much because it’s another skill set altogether. But now that there are more road courses, it’s definitely more enticing, and also, I think I would be more competitive.
“I watch the races and see the new guys coming in that have experience in road course racing, and they don’t find it easy — it’s very difficult, but I think that’s part of the challenge and why I’m excited about it.”
COTA is a racetrack Button has experience competing on from his time in Formula 1. Chicago will be new for everyone, so Button will be on a level playing field. And the Indianapolis road course, said Button, has a few similar corners to the course Button competed on there in F1.
Although he’s tied to the Garage 56 program Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR have put together for Le Mans, Button’s deal is not linked to those parties. Button mentioned to his partner, Mobil 1, in September while at a Formula 1 race about possibly entering a NASCAR event and initially thought it’d be a potential drive in the Craftsman Truck Series or Xfinity Series.
Mobil 1 took it from there and came back to Button a few months later, saying it was something the company could put together, but it wanted to do more than one race. But even by January, when Button was in Daytona for the Garage 56 driver announcement, he still had not talked to a NASCAR team. Everything has come together recently.
“We talked to Stewart-Haas and Rick Ware Racing and tried to work out how it could work and if it would work, and whether we could build the car for the races,” Button said. “It’s all been very quick how it’s turned around, and I’m a Cup Series driver. It’s been a fun couple of months, but it’s been very tight getting the car ready for Austin.”
Button has spent time with the team this week as preparations continue. Much time was spent trying to get Button comfortable in the car’s cockpit.
“That’s such an important thing,” Button noted. “I can’t be sat up straight with a steering wheel on my lap. I need to be sat back a bit more like a single-seater, and we found a position that works for me. If I have that, I’ll have a lot more feeling through the car and be able to get to grips with it quicker.”
With NASCAR’s testing rules, Button does not anticipate being able to get on track with the car before the March 26 race. However, he has tested the Garage 56 car, which has given him some sense of acclimation to the Next Gen vehicle, although the one for Le Mans has been modified especially for that race.
Button has also watched last year’s COTA race “probably 20 times” to understand where to put the car and the tendencies of the competition. Even through the film, Button feels he understands who is more aggressive than others. The rest of the leadup to COTA will see Button continue down a checklist of things he wants to try to get as familiar with as possible before getting on track.
“It’s to get used to the shifting because it’s a sequential gearbox, which I haven’t ever raced, and you have to be very aggressive with everything,” Button said. “The same with the throttle blip. It’s those little technical things I would love to do if I can before I go racing, because when you get 50 minutes of practice, we want to be doing setup work and try to get the car set up around you. So that would be good, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“I have simulator time set up next week, which is great. I’ve already done my seat fit, so I’m comfortable in the car. So, it’s simulator time, spending time with the team, getting an understanding of brake traces, throttle traces, lines, and all of the data they have. There is a lot of data — obviously less than F1 because they’re not allowed to have more than they have. But there is still a lot of data there for me to look at and learn from before I step out on track at COTA.”