Jenson Button will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut at a Circuit of The Americas venue he knows well from his Formula 1 days, but the challenge could not be much more different.
The 2009 F1 world champion will race for Rick Ware Racing — with support from Stewart-Haas — in three events this year, adding Chicago’s new street race and the Indianapolis road course to his schedule. All were chosen due to his experience at the F1 venues and the clean slate in Chicago, but in reality he feels there’s very little he can lean on in terms of previous knowledge.
“I’ve raced at COTA quite a few times in an F1 car and everyone was saying a couple of days ago when I tested there in the Garage 56 car, ‘Oh it’s easy for you, you’ve driven here in an F1 car’ but it’s a little different in an F1 car!” Button says. “You basically drive a different circuit.
“For me to get to grips with a big car, a stock car, the test last week did help even though it’s a very different type of car.
“I enjoy the track, it’s flowing — in an F1 car it’s just awesome. You go through Turn 1 and through the Esses, all the way down to Turn 9 it’s just change of direction after change of direction. You put one foot wrong at Turn 3 and that affects you all the way down to Turn 9, and I think we all love that as drivers, it’s very like the Suzuka Esses. There are some really good overtaking opportunities in an F1 car — DRS helps.
“In a stock car it’s very different. It’s obviously a lot slower, and they’re going side-by-side through Turn 3 and Turn 4, which is just crazy, but I look forward to that all that rubbing and tapping and what have you. It’s going to be an exciting experience.
“And the racing in stock cars around COTA has been good as well. I’ve watched last year’s race probably 20 times now just to get an understanding of where they’re putting the car, the different styles of driving, who’s more aggressive than others… So the race last year was really good fun to watch, so I look forward to the action.”
It’s not just a PR line that he’s looking forward to it. This is a venture that Button himself put into action by flagging his interest to Mobil 1, and has been keen to take on the more he’s learned about NASCAR since the movie “Days of Thunder” put the category on his radar as a nine-year-old.
But so few F1 drivers appear willing to take on other challenges that are so different to the world they know. Button himself was admirably committed throughout his grand prix career and then turned to punditry, suggesting that even living in America didn’t appear to break the ties to the European-based scene.
So after coming close to an IndyCar ride around the time of the pandemic, and now tackling Le Mans in NASCAR’s Garage 56 entry alongside Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller, what has driven Button to jump in a Cup car and follow in the recent footsteps of fellow F1 champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jacques Villeneuve?
“It felt so far removed from us as youngsters. I don’t want to be negative about Formula 1 because it is an amazing sport and I’m an F1 world champion so I spent most of my life there, but you’re so focused and your family doesn’t come to the races because your teams don’t really want them to be there, because they know your focus is so important,” he reflects.
“It’s very tough because it’s your life — it is everything. Everything you do is for Formula 1. I did it for 17 years and you’re in this world that you forget about everything else. It’s all that matters, is making you a better racing driver and a better Formula 1 driver. So when you step outside that, for me it’s exciting to do other things.
“With NASCAR it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong — the racing is very serious and these are some of the best drivers in the world, but the atmosphere outside the car, the atmosphere at the track is a lot more relaxed. It’s more of a family-based category, so I think that’s why we like it, because it’s trying something different. We’ve done something the same for so many years, so to try something different is exciting.
“Jacques raced last year, Kimi did a race last year, and everyone seems to enjoy it. And I think it’s also because we love another challenge. It’s trying something different. We’re not just F1 drivers, we’re racing drivers. I also live in the States so it definitely helps with that.”
It’s not just a one-off interest that Button has, either. While he admits it’s his performances that will decide if there’s further opportunities for him to race in the Cup Series beyond the three announced, the 43-year-old is also eyeing up a potential oval transition for events like the Daytona 500, but has a longer path in mind as something he can do without sacrificing family time.
“For me it’s not just driving the racing car. A racing car is a racing car, and it’s very different to what I’m used to but you get to grips with it over time,” he says. “It’s the racing that’s a lot more difficult, having cars all around you, having a spotter telling you who’s where and a lot of the time you’re stuck in the middle and can’t really do much!
“It’s just a very different type of racing, and that’s the bit I think would take a while. I could go and drive on an oval, and I’m sure it would take me time but I’d get to grips with it — especially at a circuit like Daytona where it’s flat (out) the whole way round. But it’s when you put other cars into the equation and the drafting and the pushing, it’s a lot to learn.
“Doing that in the Cup Series probably isn’t the best way for me, jumping in a Cup car in Daytona. I think it might be better to do it in a lower category first and get a bit of experience that way.
“The atmosphere is great, and that’s what I really love about NASCAR. About all the different series in NASCAR but especially Cup Series, it’s the family atmosphere that really got me. I was speaking to Jimmie Johnson and he says, ‘My kids come along and they’re playing with everyone else’s kids!’ It’s that part of it that really adds to the interest for me.”
Whatever the motivation behind it, it’s sure to add to the wider motorsports interest in certain NASCAR events this year, too. That’s a win-win for everyone.