Top 10 road racers who left their mark on NASCAR
January 25, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
As the premier form of motorsports in North America, NASCAR has long been a series that competitors in other racing disciplines have found impossible to resist. Regardless of what circuit they hail from, so many drivers have been drawn to NASCAR, whether to just stick a toe in the water, or take the plunge and go all the way in.
That's certainly true of drivers who have shown prowess in road racing, like those competing this weekend in the Rolex 24 At Daytona -- the first such event under the banner of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Just as the Rolex 24 and other prominent road racing events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans have lured in NASCAR drivers on several occasions, many of those who excelled on serpentine circuits have occasionally felt the need to trade their GTs or formula cars for stocks.
Road racing has a long and proud history in NASCAR, as have the road racers who have competed within it. Some stayed for full seasons, some started only a race here or there, others changed careers completely. Many left an indelible impact, even if they stayed for only a short while. So in celebration of this weekend's Rolex 24, here are the top 10 road racers who left their mark on NASCAR.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
ROLEX 24 AT DAYTONA COVERAGE
- Saturday: 2-4 p.m. ET on FOX; 4-9 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 2
- Overnight (Saturday-Sunday): 9 p.m.-7 a.m. ET on IMSA.com (includes live images, in-car cameras and announcers)
- Sunday, Jan. 26: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1
10. Jerry Nadeau
In NASCAR circles, Nadeau is best-remembered for his lone victory in the sport's top series, a weather-delayed triumph at Atlanta on the final day of the 2000 season. But the Connecticut racer cut his teeth in sports cars, winning a Skip Barber scholarship and racing a pair of seasons in the Zerex-Saab Pro Series. Although his lone NASCAR victory was on an oval, Nadeau almost certainly would have won in 2002 at Sonoma had a rear-end gear not failed with three laps remaining. One month later, he scored a class victory in a sports car event at Daytona. Who knows how much more he might have been capable of had his career not ended in a crash during a practice session at Richmond in 2003.
9. Ron Fellows
Thanks in part to his affiliation with Corvette Racing, the Canadian-born Fellows has done just about everything in sports-car racing, including an overall triumph in the Rolex and three class victories at Le Mans. He was also an early convert to NASCAR, making his first start at Watkins Glen in 1995. One of the preeminent road-course "ringers" of his time, the affable Fellows was also a ready source of information to series regulars. He was an ace at the Glen, where he has earned three of his four Nationwide Series wins, both of his Camping World Truck Series triumphs, and scored his highest Sprint Cup Series finish -- second, in 1999 and 2004. His NASCAR rides may have dried up as the regulars improved, but in the Finger Lakes region especially, Fellows will be long remembered.
8. Mark Donohue
Donohue experienced a varied -- if often trying -- career in sports cars. His affiliation with Roger Penske produced a slew of victories in Trans-Am and other U.S. road racing series, in addition to the 1972 Indy 500. But it was on road circuits where Donohue was at his best, as he showed again in 1973 when he won a Sprint Cup Series event for Penske at Riverside International Raceway. It was the first of many NASCAR victories for "The Captain," and the most recent time a "ringer" has won a road-course event at NASCAR's top level. Donohue made just six premier-series starts in NASCAR, but his mark at Riverside from four decades ago still stands.
7. Mario Andretti
To put it simply, Andretti won in everything -- including NASCAR, where his handful of starts netted him a victory in the sport's biggest race in 1967. Most famous for his exploits in Formula 1 and open-wheel racing, the Italian-American was also a terror in sports cars, as he showed by winning three 12 Hours of Sebring races in addition to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1972 (an event shortened to six hours that year). Although triumph at Le Mans ultimately evaded the 1978 F1 world champion, victory in NASCAR did not. Andretti made just 14 starts at NASCAR's highest level, but one of them was a Daytona 500 victory for Holman-Moody in 1967. Daytona International Speedway had become truly international indeed.
6. Marcos Ambrose
Unlike many road racers who only dallied in NASCAR, the Australian went all-in. The one-time F1 aspirant raced for a time in Europe before ending up back home in V8 Supercars, where he won the pole in his first start and eventually claimed back-to-back championships. In 2006 he made the leap to NASCAR, and two years later had his first national-series victory in a Nationwide event in 2008 at Watkins Glen. Ambrose has since won a pair of Sprint Cup events at the Glen, and let one famously slip away in 2009 at Sonoma. While he hasn't yet broken through on an oval -- his best finish is third, at Dover and Bristol -- and he had a down season last year with Richard Petty Motorsports, there's no questioning the commitment of a driver who moved halfway around the world to chase his dream.
5. Dan Gurney
Much like Andretti, Gurney was an American F1 driver (with four career F1 victories) who couldn't resist the temptation NASCAR presented. Raised amid the height of the California hot-rod culture, Gurney gravitated to road racing and blitzed through the Trans-Am and Can-Am circuits en route to F1. But along the way he made 16 starts in what is now the Sprint Cup Series, and on the Riverside road course he was nearly unbeatable. He won there five times, with four of those victories coming with the Wood Brothers, and is tied for second in all-time NASCAR wins at the since-closed track. Gurney also made three runs at the Daytona 500, placing fifth in the Great American Race with Holman-Moody in 1963. Four years later he added a Le Mans title, and began the tradition of the victor spraying champagne.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
Few moves in recent memory sent more shock waves throughout international motorsport than Montoya's jump from F1 to NASCAR in 2006. A road racer with a resume to rival the best ever, Montoya has succeeded at a variety of levels ranging from F1 to the Indy 500 to the Rolex 24 At Daytona, where he anchored a trio of victories for car owner Chip Ganassi. His NASCAR career was one of promise and frustration, capped by three national-series victories -- two at the Sprint Cup level -- all on road courses, and a pair of infuriatingly close calls at the Brickyard. But Montoya never won on an oval, saw his performance lag along with that of his Ganassi team, and left NASCAR after the 2013 campaign. Even so, his seven full-time seasons sent a message that Sprint Cup was as competitive as any circuit in the world.
3. Robby Gordon
Wait, Robby Gordon -- road racer? Oh, yes. He may be better known for his off-road exploits, but the California native was a stone-cold ace in series like Trans-Am and the former incarnation of IMSA. He was a part of four consecutive class victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and three in the 12 Hours of Sebring. On a road course, Gordon could wheel it, as evidenced by his Sprint Cup victories at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. But what sets Gordon apart from other luminaries is that not only did he race NASCAR full-time for eight seasons, he won on unrestricted ovals -- in the Nationwide Series at Richmond, and at the Sprint Cup level at New Hampshire. That's the true mark of NASCAR validation for a one-time road racer, and Gordon earned it.
2. A.J. Foyt
While his legacy is unquestionably most tied to his four Indy 500 victories, the great Texan was no slouch on a road course, either -- after all, he won the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- the latter in his one and only attempt -- a trifecta not even Andretti could replicate. And 'ol A.J. knew his way around a stock car, too, competing in 128 premier-series races over 30 (30!) seasons, winning seven times along the way. His most notable victory may have been the 1972 Daytona 500, but Foyt also won unrestricted oval events at Atlanta and Ontario. He even started the inaugural Brickyard in 1994 at age 59, and made three Truck Series starts in his 60s, reason alone for any NASCAR fan to have a soft spot for the guy.
1. Boris Said
No, he never won a Sprint Cup event. Yes, he has just one victory in each of the Nationwide and Truck circuits, both of them at road courses. But over the course of a long career in NASCAR, one in which he made several attempts to go full-time, the California racer achieved something with much broader implications -- he willingly made drivers like himself obsolete. The reason so few road-course ringers exist today is because Said helped the rank-and-file NASCAR regulars get that much better at road racing. In the end, he was successful enough that his services weren't needed anymore.
Said is a legendary road racer, with victories in the Rolex, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Nurburgring, among other events. In early 1999, he got a call from the Wood Brothers to help tutor Elliott Sadler at Sonoma -- and soon enough he was tutoring most everyone. A European journalist once tallied all the NASCAR drivers Said had helped, and came up with the total of 32. Said pursued his own NASCAR career with some success, making 47 Sprint Cup starts, but eventually the top-level rides that once went to ringers dried up as the regulars got better. Said had much to do with that, and even though he didn't enjoy the NASCAR achievements of a Foyt, Gurney or Montoya, he left a greater legacy than them all.