Jenson Button was so anxiously excited to finally get behind the wheel of a stock car at Circuit of The Americas that there was a minor hiccup before he could even get on track for NASCAR Cup Series practice.
“I forgot how to start the car, which was interesting,” he said Friday afternoon. “So they pushed the car back and I’m like, ‘It won’t start.’ There were a few other switches I had to put up. But then it was OK.”
Button clocked in 28th fastest in the only practice session of the weekend — fortunately a 50-minute extended practice as Cup Series teams worked with the new rules package on a road course for the first time.
“I got onto the circuit and I was surprised by how little grip there was initially when I pulled away, and the tires were cold,” Button said. “But it comes to you over time. The gear shifting is something that…I’ve not never driven a sequential gearbox car. I’ve (just) never pulled back going through the gears and pushed to go down. It’s something completely new to learn. I’ve driven a manual gearbox, but you always go across the box. The last time I drove a gearbox like this was like in 1999.
“There’s a lot that you go back into the bank of info you’ve learned over the years, and you bring it out again. It comes to you pretty quick. I really enjoyed it.”
The stark differences in the cockpit extended beyond shifting. Button was also struck by what he was looking through — a windshield with angles and braces that he admitted made it hard to focus on where to put his eyes.
Like many other drivers who have come before him, the Brit has found many differences from the discipline of racing he’s most used to — in this case Formula 1 — to NASCAR. Not only is he learning stock cars and experiencing a much different family environment, but, as practice taught him, he’s learning the differences in how the radios are used as well.
“It’s also interesting having spotters,” he said. “I’ve never had spotters before. So I’ve got guys in my ear the whole way around telling me there’s traffic behind, there’s traffic in front – it’s quite soothing. I kind of like it.
“Our spotters have very soothing voices, which I think is good, and it’s especially going to be good on Sunday when it’s manic out there. That’s something else to learn – having my mirrors, so I can see around me. But they tell me all the fun information about what’s going on around me.”
Button and the rest of the Cup Series field will set the starting line with qualifying Saturday morning. Just as he’s doing with the race, he is going into qualifying with realistic expectations of being competitive but not necessarily at the top of the leaderboard.
The former World Champion is confident in what the car is doing and feels he did most things right during practice. COTA is the first of three races for Button this season, which was by design. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d get the “lovely opportunity” to race a Cup Series car, and doing just one race isn’t enough for him to learn and get the full experience.
“Driving a car is something I’ve done my whole life, so I will be competitive in terms of our race speed,” Button said. “But it’s the other side of it where I have no experience – and that’s being six abreast going into Turn 1 and tapping here and there. As I noticed here in practice, people don’t move out of the way when they’re on a slow lap and you’re on a quick lap.
“There’s a lot to learn. It’s a very, very different sport than what I’m used to. I’ll go with it; roll with the punches. I look forward to the challenge.”