Former Formula One driver and 2009 world champion Jenson Button made his competitive NASCAR Cup Series track debut on Friday.
The Englishman who is competing for Rick Ware Racing with Mobil 1 Racing is joined in the field for this weekend.
WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS GETTING OUT OF THE NEXT-GEN CAR, AND WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO?
“First of all: Good afternoon. It’s lovely to be here. This is a great opportunity for me. I never thought, in my wildest dreams, I’d be racing in a Cup car. So, this is a lovely opportunity. I got to thank Mobil 1 for it. As you probably know, I’ve been doing quite a bit of driving and stock car racing at Le Mans for later this year. But we don’t really have so much competition in that, so this is exciting. I get to race against 30 other crazy guys out there. I’m really, really looking forward to the challenge – and it definitely is a big challenge. Jumping in the car for a 50-minute practice session – and that’s it – before we go qualifying and racing. It’s tough I think for anyone who is not used to big, heavy cars with low downforce. I’m enjoying the process. The team has been great, and I’m looking forward to a good, solid weekend. The car felt pretty good out there, and I think tomorrow in qualifying – when it really counts to get a lap in – there’s a bit more pressure. We’ll see how it goes. Setup wise working with my guys, improving it… yeah, we’re going in the right direction.”
WHAT WAS YOUR PREPARATION FOR LE MANS WITH GARAGE 56, AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO GET READY FOR THAT?
“Testing – lots of testing. I’ve done six days in the car now. But, it’s very different to this. People are like, ‘ You know, this is very useful for the Garage 56 program,’ but it’s not. It’s very different – paddle shift, it’s got downforce, it’s lighter and kind of like eight seconds a lap quicker. But they both have their place. I enjoy both of them equally. It’s fun with a project you’re involved in in terms of development, but it’s also fun jumping into a stock car that’s the same pretty much as everyone else’s on the grid. I’m a racing driver, and I love racing – whatever it is. Racing at Le Mans is spectacular, and it’s such a special place. If you haven’t been, you’ll have to go. But, for me, going wheel-to-wheel here is pretty special.”
FEW MORE TOMORROW. HAVE YOU EVER HAD A RACE WHERE YOU ONLY COMPLETED 15 OR SO LAPS IN THE CAR? WAS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT THE CAR YOU REALIZED IN PRACTICE THAT YOU DIDN’T EXPECT?
“No, I pretty much expected everything I felt. I think it’s a lot more extreme in some ways than others that I expected. I mean, position in the car feels good. The weirdest thing for me is that there’s so much on the windscreen. So focusing out of the windscreen is very difficult. There’s all sorts of different pillars and different angles, the windscreen wiper. Getting your head around that and your eyes to focus passed that definitely takes time. I’m used to having a visor and that’s it. It’s opened me. So, that took a bit of time and it’s still not there – you know, that feeling. But, I’m confident in what the car is doing – it’s moving a lot, and riding curbs is something I’m not used to as much as most of the boys here. So, it’s new and it’s a challenge, but I followed a few guys out there, and I’m doing most things right. It’s just the fine-tuning: I’m not there with my driving yet or the car. I’ve never jumped into a car for 13 laps and gone qualifying. That’s different than what I’m used to – it takes a bit of time. I’m not a guy that jumps in a car and goes immediately quick. I need to work with it a little bit, work with the engineers and build it around me. Tomorrow will be fun. The race is Sunday. But I still think qualifying can be relatively competitive.”
CODY WARE, YOUR TEAMMATE, HAS QUITE A BIT OF CUP EXPERIENCE AND ALSO SOME OPEN-WHEEL EXPERIENCE. HOW HAVE YOU BEEN GELLING WITH HIM, AND HOW IS THIS EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT TO HAVING A TEAMMATE IN F1 DURING A RACE WEEKEND?
“The first thing I noticed compared to F1 is that he’s a big dude. He is tall. So yeah, you don’t get that in F1. I’m like six-foot and the tallest driver in F1. Six-foot, four [inches] – it’s tall. Even to squeeze yourself into a stock car. So, that was the first thing. I think with his experience of racing different cars, he knows how competitive Cup car is. That’s the big thing, really. A lot of people come here and think, ‘Oh, it’s easy. I’ve raced cars my whole life around circuits. Why would it be any different in the Cup series?’ But it is. It’s heavy and lazy in some ways. It doesn’t make it less exciting, but it just makes it different. It’s tough. I don’t expect to go out there and qualify top-three tomorrow, or to finish top-three on Sunday. I expect a challenging race, but a race where I’m going to learn a lot as well. That’s why I wanted to do three races this year – one race isn’t enough. I need the experience of here at COTA, before I move to Chicago and lastly, Indianapolis. There’s no reason for me not to be competitive, but it just takes a bit of time. These guys have driven these cars for years. They know the nuances and what makes them work, which just takes a little time for me.”
IT’S COOL THAT YOUR RACING WITH THE GUYS THAT YOU’RE WORKING WITH AT GARAGE 56. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT RACING WITH JORDAN [TAYLOR] AND KIMI [RAIKKONEN]?
“Yeah, well Jordan has to slow down. He really went fast in practice, but no, it’s great that we all got this opportunity. Jordan, he’s a great guy and obviously extremely talented. Anything he jumps in, he is quick. And we’ve seen that with the Garage 56 car. He’s a character, a good character. Wherever he goes, he has a great fan-base because he has that personality. All sports need that and in motorsports. It’s good to see him competitive and to have this opportunity. And we talk about it all the time – texting all the time and laughing because he’s so different than what we’re used to. We got this opportunity to race in the Cup series. With Kimi, obviously he has a lot of experience racing in the Cup series and has won many championships. So, he comes at it from a different way, but road courses are still a challenge for him. It’s still something he didn’t do so much back in the day – it was more ovals than road courses. It’s all exciting, and it’s great working with these different guys that come from different backgrounds in Garage 56 – and to see them be competitive here in the Cup series.
DO YOU THINK YOU’LL BE COMPETITIVE?
“Driving a car is something I’ve done my whole life. So, I will be competitive in terms of our race speed. But as you said, 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 sports than what I’m used to. I’ll go with it… roll with the punches. I look forward to the challenge.
WITH ALL THE ANTICIPATION, WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN YOU GOT TO RUN THE TRACK AT SPEED FOR THE FIRST TIME?
“I mean first of all: A little bit anxious but excited at the same time. I forgot how to start the car which was interesting. 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. 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. But, it comes to you over time. The gear shifting is something that… I’ve not never driven a sequential gearbox car. I’ve 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. It’s also interesting having spotters. 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.”
WAS THE ATMOSPHERE WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
“Well, this was one reason why I was interested in racing in NASCAR was because from the outside, it looks like a real family atmosphere. I’m a dad now – I have two kids. I took my son, my wife came along as well, to the Coliseum. So we had a great experience there in seeing the Cup series. And then I took my son again to Fontana to watch, saw a few of the drivers and Corey LaJoie said his son’s named Jenson. So I thought that was quite funny and said, ‘Did you know that I’m actually going to be racing you in a few weeks?’ But, it was just a really nice atmosphere. We were invited into peoples’ teams, my son was given a car – a mini Cup car by one of the teams. It was just so cool. The opportunity for your family to be around where you’re racing is something I’m not used to. Formula 1 is very different and come at it from a very different angle, that you need to be solo and focused on your driving. Where here: You still have some of the best drivers in the world, but they come at it from a different way. Family keeps them grounded, keeps them relaxed over race weekends. I really enjoy that family atmosphere, and for people who have never been to a NASCAR race, they need to because it’s that atmosphere that really makes the sport.”
EARLIER IN THE YEAR, YOU WERE KARTING. HOW WAS THAT, AND DO YOU PLAN ON GETTING INTO ANYTHING ELSE IN THE NEXT YEAR OR TWO?
“Yeah, I used to kart from 1988 to 1997 – I was a kart driver, and I raced all around the world. Raced in Charlotte, Japan and all these wonderful places as a teenager. And then I moved into car racing with F1 for 17 years. So last year, I thought I’d give it a go. As a 42-year-old, I figured I’d go karting again – 25 years after I retired. And I loved it. Finished fourth, and then raced again in January and got on the podium. It’s the purest form of racing… it’s not quite as extreme as what I’m about to experience on Sunday, but you always have people around you, nudging you… there’s someone to your inside, someone to your outside. They don’t give you an inch. I felt that it was useful for me looking ahead to this season and racing in the Cup series. It was a lot of fun. Other plans this year? Nothing set in stone yet. I have a few ideas for 2024, but nothing this year.”