Even for the avid fans that only track with NASCAR, Lewis Hamilton is a recognized star. At the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Race that concluded the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamilton made a cameo drop-in with cameras shadowing him throughout the garage.
Having already sewn-up his third Formula One World Championship, Lewis Hamilton prepared for the final race of the F1 season in Abu Dhabi race by spending the off-weekend stateside in Miami in order to support Jeff Gordon’s quest for a fifth NASCAR Championship, which fell short in his final career race.
Most notably at Homestead, Hamilton signaled his aspirations to perhaps follow in Gordon’s footsteps someday when he stated, “It was a really cool event; I hope I get to do one (race) one day.” According to Gordon, Hamilton was filled with questions about NASCAR.
For Hamilton, he would surely have to get past the little matter of a pay cut, which he probably could afford given his career earnings already. Reportedly, the 30-year-old Hamilton earns approximately $42 million dollars per year under his just renewed three-year deal with Mercedes AMG Petronas, which is multiples higher than a NASCAR star typically makes.
However, Hamilton has continued to drop suggestive nuggets. Earlier in August, London’s Daily Mirror also reported that Hamilton hinted that he wouldn’t rule out eventually trying his hand at NASCAR in an actual event.
Moreover, in a June 2011 Mobil 1 promotional event, Hamilton got a little sampler of NASCAR when he swapped rides with three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart for a day at Watkins Glen International.
Hamilton jumped behind the wheel of a NASCAR stocker weighing more than two times as much as his F1 car. Hamilton fondly recalls that “Tony was an excellent teacher and I quickly found a good rhythm. Those cars are raw and powerful! They are fantastic fun to drive.”
At the same time, Hamilton might even enjoy escaping the politics of the pre-determined team marching orders that seem more obvious among F1 teams than within NASCAR mega-teams.
This prototype for an F1 driver transition has already been tested. Back in 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya (at the time, F1 driver for Williams BMW) and Jeff Gordon traded places, taking turns driving speed demonstration laps around the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as another Mobil 1 promotion in advance of the Brickyard 400.
Fast forward three years later to 2006, and Juan Pablo Montoya left F1 for a NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in a relationship that spanned eight seasons. Alas, Montoya had a mostly up-and-down NASCAR career, and was not able to capitalize on early breakthroughs such as his win at Sonoma in 2007.
NASCAR certainly wants to be taken serious on the international stage. Illustratively, this week Toyota is pulling out all the stops in celebrating its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship earned by Kyle Busch, with Toyota Racing’s President and General Manager David Wilson calling it “Toyota’s singular greatest achievement in motorsports.”
And Hamilton is undoubtedly a global celebrity, as well as an avid fan of American culture. Hamilton would have no trouble finding a sponsor to back a one-off NASCAR ride given the longer duration of the NASCAR season, or even a complete changeover should he decide he has accomplished everything he has sought in F1.
Yet some NASCAR narrow-minded loyalists have already taken to social media to critique such a possibility. The challenges fall into two buckets: Either Hamilton would not have success in NASCAR (pointing at other open wheel drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, or the brief NASCAR truck tenure of Kimi Raikkonen during his F1 sabbatical); or that Hamilton would not culturally “fit”, because his has too much bling, too much attitude, and too much reliance on F1’s superior technology.
However, all sports are competing for eyeballs and the almighty entertainment dollar. And entertainment is nothing more than a business that requires investment and return. Having an F1 champion, worldwide superstar, and dynamic celebrity take his shot at NASCAR can only serve to expand the pie and draw more eyeballs to the sport, if only for the curiosity factor. Occasionally, NASCAR fans complain that certain drivers are “too vanilla.” While I don’t agree with such assessments, there can be no doubt that a star like Hamilton trying his hand at NASCAR certainly wouldn’t be vanilla.
And the cross-pollination and racing exchange would only broaden motorsports’ overall exposure, while breaking down the parochial stereotypes surrounding NASCAR as a sport full of “moonshiners”.
Hamilton to NASCAR? My retort is: “Now that would be some quintessential racing, so boys, have at it!”
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged