Who knew Tom Cruise would have such an impact on a nine-year-old Jenson Button? Little did we know that the kid from Frome in Somerset, who was just starting to tear up the UK’s go-kart circuits and then shoot for Formula 1 stardom, was so in awe of Cole Trickle and his somewhat unorthodox journey to win a fictitious version. of the Daytona 500 for Harry Hogg…
“Where I grew up we had four channels on TV, so we didn’t have any NASCAR race coverage,” Button says. “Well, the first NASCAR race I ever watched was Days of Thunder!
“I was like, ‘this is so cool.’ I was nine at the time, watching with my dad. To have the opportunity to live this dream is very nice.”
Thursday’s announcement that Button will run three road races was revealed in somewhat Hollywood fashion, with him appearing on FOX RaceHub show, along with host Kaitlyn Vincie, former NASCAR team owner Andy Petree and Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray to discuss his new deal.
Of course, Button also participates as a driver in NASCAR’s Garage 56 program, driving a Chevrolet Camaro in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, but his opportunity to compete in the Cup – in a Rick Ware Racing Ford Mustang – is anything but a happy coincidence for the now 43-year-old Californian.
“I’m excited and very nervous at the same time,” says Button. “It’s so different. I’ve seen so many drivers from the past in Formula 1 get into a stock car, a Cup car, and it’s really difficult. And you don’t have much practice either.
“I’m ready for a challenge, I have the utmost respect for the drivers and the teams I’ll be racing with. The attention to detail in which they strive to be competitive is staggering. It will take some time. patience will be key as I learn. So that you don’t overdo it and get disappointed, that’s the point.”
Button’s preparation is in full swing at the moment, with the COTA race just two weeks away. He got a wicked drive time in the Garage 56 car – ‘it’s very different [to a Cup car] – otherwise they wouldn’t have let me try,” he’s quick to point out – and he’s happy to find that NASCAR has extended its practice session in Austin to 50 minutes instead of 15. But what does he expect from his debut?
Button Rick Ware Racing Ford Mustang for NASCAR debut
Photo by: True Speed PR
“I’ve watched the races over and over, especially the road races, to understand the different styles,” he says. “There’s a lot of rubbing and banging and all kinds of things – it’s very physical.
“It’s such a challenge and it’s so exciting for me, I know the level in the Cup Series is incredibly good. I have watched a lot, to understand the racecourse. And it’s about understanding each individual driver as well as how they drive the car. Some are more aggressive than others.”
The three tracks were chosen with Button’s road racing expertise in mind – although you won’t see him at Watkins Glen because the small RWR team can’t turn the car around fast enough from the previous race. But his means match his expectations. this deal is about learning instead of winning – for now, at least.
“Starting at COTA, I love the track and I’ve raced there in F1,” says Button. “It’s great to start there, and knowing that, I just have to learn the way of racing. It kind of feels like a different track, because an F1 car is 40 seconds a lap faster!
“When this opportunity came up, I called Jimmy and said, ‘Should I do it?’ And he said, “man, you’re going to have a blast.” That’s why I’m in! If Jimmie thinks it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun.” Jenson Button
“Indy, I know half the track, because we raced there in F1. Chicago is new to everyone and I’m racing a car that weighs 3500 pounds, on a street track, that wouldn’t be the best first race for me! It will be a great spectacle. it’s tough racing on a road track.”
Since retiring from full-time Formula 1 at the end of 2016, Button has raced in Japan in Super GT and dabbled in LMP1 prototype sports cars, rallycross and even did some off-road racing.
“In F1 I got to a point where I wasn’t learning anything new,” he reflects on his career. “I wanted to try different things – I consider myself a racing driver, not just an F1 driver. I raced in Japan, which was super-competitive, I raced at Le Mans, I’ve done Trophy Truck races, the Baja 1000 and a few other things.
“I knew I wanted to try a stock car and I’d been watching it for decades with my dad, we’d sit and watch it and I liked Dale Earnhardt and obviously Tony [Stewart]Jeff [Gordon] and Jimmy [Johnson, his Garage 56 team-mate].
Button’s NASCAR adventure is one of many different disciplines of motorsport he has tried since retiring from F1
Photo: Xite Racing
“It reminds me of my karting days where the competition is so close. In F1, you make an overtaking move and it’s like “wow, someone overtook!” [Jenson punches the air for comic effect] And that’s what makes F1 exciting, because it’s so hard to overtake. But in NASCAR, it’s just like all-action, you’re going side-by-side in corners where you just don’t think it’s possible. Turn 3 at COTA should never be side by side, but they are done [the Esses].
“F1 is a fantastic series, but it’s not as family friendly as NASCAR. I love that about NASCAR – watching the Daytona 500 rally, I was on a flight and it was a three-hour rally, and I saw every driver with their families on the grid. It’s so nice, I really like it.”
As we saw when Kimi Raikkonen raced for the Trackhouse’s Project 91 team at Watkins Glen last year, with his wife and kids hanging around in the pits, NASCAR’s relaxed and family atmosphere will be a refreshing nature after the stifling atmosphere of F1.
“It was great to see Kimi race [at Watkins Glen] and to hear that he’s coming back to the same race as me, so I’ll be face to face with him again,” smiles Jenson. “When you see people like Kimi come in, or [sportscar ace] Joey Hand, you see how competitive this series is. And I think that just increases interest in the sport.
“We all know how difficult it is to go from a high pressure car to a stock car and vice versa as Jimmie has shown over the last two years. When this opportunity came up, I called Jimmy and said, “Should I do it?” And he said, “man, you’re going to explode.” That’s why I’m in! If Jimmie thinks it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun.”
And there’s not long to wait, as Jenson will hit the track for practice in Austin in just two weeks when he finally gets to put the hammer down on his new NASCAR career.
How will Button fare in his NASCAR debut?
Photo: Garage 56