Son of Formula One driver looks to live up to his father's reputation in NASCAR
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Superstar fathers, striving sons: it’s a familiar scenario in NASCAR, a sport built on pedigrees and rich in family tradition.
Like the Pettys and Earnhardts, the Jarretts and Allisons -- all of whom enjoyed multi-generational success and stardom -- Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet Jr. has brought his racing pedigree to NASCAR.
However, unlike those other famous family trees so strongly rooted in the stock car universe, Piquet’s father, Nelson Piquet, is a retired three-time Formula One champion (1981, ’83, ’87) from Brazil. And now he’s got to figure out this fender-rubbing, bump-drafting brand of racing his namesake has chosen to pursue.
“He’s trying to understand it slowly and, race after race, he understands more,’’ Piquet Jr. said of his father. “He still gets a bit lost in the middle of the race, especially the Nationwide races that are a little longer. But he is happy (for me). He is excited."
Piquet added with a grin, “He gets more scared because the cars are so quick and close to the wall all the time. As he gets older he’s watching less and less of the races because he says his heart is not allowing him to watch the whole race, especially when they go three-wide.’’
His son, however, has taken to the sport immediately. And vice versa.
Not only did Piquet become the first Brazilian to win races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck series (twice) and NASCAR Nationwide Series (once) last year, fans voted him Most Popular Driver in the Camping World Truck Series.
This season, after weighing several NASCAR opportunities -- including an invitation to move up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series level -- Piquet is staying with Turner Scott Motorsports and moving fulltime into the Nationwide Series, where he notched a win (at Road America) in 2012 in only his third career start.
He’ll roll off 17th in Saturday’s season-opening DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway, absolutely convinced it’s the next crucial development to him becoming a bona fide stock car racing star.
“It will be a big step,’’ Piquet said. “This will be tough. We are running against other good teams and a lot of good drivers this year. It makes me even more excited, it’s more reasons to do well, to learn, to work harder.
“I could have signed a three-year deal with an average (Cup) team, but it was too early and I don’t want to step into a Cup car unless I had a good chance of winning.
“I don’t think it’s good for drivers to be running in the middle or back, just hanging around. I think it’s important for a driver to always be in competitive stuff, winning races, always that edge under pressure. You’re running second and need to win the race, or your leading and holding someone off. That’s what you need to be learning to win championships.’’
The only thing greater than his optimism and confidence seems to be the love he receives from fans -- those who followed him during a brief, if also controversial, time in Formula One and those who are just becoming familiar with him in NASCAR.
The handsome, straight-talking 27-year-old Piquet speaks four languages, boasts a huge social media following and says the first biography he ever read as a kid was about Richard Petty.
And ironically, it will be Petty’s career path and not his own father’s that Piquet has chosen -- or, as he insists, “fallen in love with." That path is made more difficult by the fact that he has a name to live up to.
“I like a challenge,’’ Piquet explained. “A driver always wants to prove himself to fans and to himself that he is capable of doing it.’’
It may also be about redemption for Piquet, who scored one podium finish in 28 Formula 1 starts from 2008-09 and was involved in a headline-making controversy over “team orders.’’
“Obviously what happened to me in Europe wasn’t the best thing in the world, I didn’t have a chance to prove myself,’’ Piquet said. “I knew I was a good driver and whatever situation or car I could race, I believed I could do well.
“So I decided, ‘Hey, nobody ever went from F1 to NASCAR and was successful, so I want to do that.' That was the first reason I came here. The second reason, once I got here, I fell in love with the whole sport. My mind just changed. Not only a reason to prove myself capable of (success) anywhere I can, but because I just fell in love with the whole game over here.’’
And now, he is working to convert his legendary father.
“The pressure my father puts is not a bad pressure,’’ Piquet said. “He wants me to do well and he believes in me. The rest of the family probably watches more than him but more as a fan.
“My father’s always a very, very hard critic. Obviously, he saw the first (truck) race I won (in Michigan) and understood it was a bit of a fuel mileage race.
“My father is kind of a harsh guy so the first time he said to me, ‘You did it now’ was after the Vegas race. We had Road America before it but it was a road course and he wanted me to win on an oval... He wants me to win championships and races all the time, like any other father."
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