Mathias Lauda finds an unlikely home in NASCAR
July 18, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Photo credits: Stephane Azemard/NASCAR Whelen Euro Series
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He may have been raised in Europe as the son of a three-time Formula One champion, but when it came to his own personal preferences, Mathias Lauda always gravitated toward a very different form of racing.
"To be honest, I was always a NASCAR fan," said the son of global racing icon Niki Lauda. Now the 33-year-old is getting the chance to put that passion into practice as a driver on the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, where Lauda won a race on the Tours Speedway oval in France earlier this month. And this weekend brings another opportunity at the famed Nurburgring, a track not only immediately associated with his father, but where Lauda also has more experience than anywhere else on the circuit.
While it might seem an odd combination -- the son of an F1 legend driving V8 stock cars on a continent typically obsessed with open-wheel racing -- to the younger Lauda, it all seems natural. The native Austrian has always held an appreciation for the close competition in NASCAR, and attended the Sprint Cup Series finale in 2004 at the invitation of a friend who had connections with Kurt Busch, who clinched the championship on that day in South Florida. Even while competing in a variety of European circuits, Lauda always had one eye on stock cars in the United States.
"I was always a big fan of NASCAR," he said by telephone from his home in Barcelona, Spain. "I always followed the races. But I knew that for a European driver, it’s very hard to get to get into the U.S. and start in NASCAR. There was also a point in my career a couple of years ago where I tried to get into NASCAR in the U.S., but it is really tough for a European. You need to bring sponsors in the beginning, and it's really hard to find a sponsor in Europe that wants to go to the U.S. But I was always a fan of NASCAR."
To the point where he jumped at the chance to compete this season in the Euro Series. Lauda had followed a rather typical career path for a European driver, driving in circuits like Formula 3000, its successor GP2, and the German touring car series DTM, where he raced for Mercedes. But from the very first test he felt comfortable in the stock car, and the Americanized nature of the Euro Series -- "no politics, just pure racing," Lauda called it -- was a refreshing change from what he had experienced before. So were the vehicles, which like their counterparts in NASCAR's U.S.-based circuits, don't offer all the driver aids available in other types of race cars.
"To be honest, I really like the style of racing, like how you have to drive the cars," he said. "All the cars I've driven before, they’ve always gotten more and more easy to drive. Like GT cars, they have traction control, they have ABS, they have pedal shifting. Every time, it makes it easier and easier, and they drive like PlayStation a little bit. It's really hard to make mistakes, and it's really hard to overtake. The first couple of races here in NASCAR, it's like everything is back a couple of years, or 20 years, and everything is more basic, but it makes the racing much more interesting. You can start to overtake again, you can race really close to each other without losing all the downforce. And in general, it's just a lot of fun, to be honest."
No wonder, then, Lauda took immediately to the stock car. In his first season in the Euro Series -- which holds two races on each event weekend (an Elite 1 event and an Elite 2 event; Lauda competes in the Elite 1 division) -- he has five top-10 finishes in six starts, including a somewhat unexpected victory in wet conditions July 6 at Tours. He enters the Nurburgring event third in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series Elite 1 division point standings. Lauda used the outside position on a late restart to pass defending series champion Ander Vilarino with nine laps remaining, and won on the .333-mile oval as heavy rain began to fall.
Mathias Lauda celebrates his NASCAR Whelen Euro Series victory at Tours Speedway.
"It was the first time that we raced an oval, and we couldn't test before. It was all new," Lauda said. "So I came there with no expectations, and from the first practice on I had a really good feeling. It's tough, because you can't make any mistakes, and you have to drive really clean, and you have to be quick through the traffic because the laps are really short. But from the beginning on, it was really a lot of fun."
Prior to Tours, Lauda thought his best chance at a first Euro Series victory might be at another track -- the famed Nurburgring, where the circuit competes Saturday and Sunday, and where Lauda has plenty of laps from his GP2 and DTM days. In many minds, the German road course is also deeply connected to the Lauda name -- it was there in 1976 where Niki Lauda suffered the fiery crash that left him with severe burns and forced him to spend weeks in a hospital. Although the elder Lauda recovered and went on to win two more championships, the accident at Nurburgring has become as synonymous with the 65-year-old as his three titles and 25 race victories in F1.
For Mathias, though, that incident has no bearing on his return to the track.
"Not at all," he said. "First, it was a long, long time ago, even before I was born. And second, it was on the old track … and we run on the (grand prix) course. It's like a different race track. I've driven in the old track -- two years ago I did the 24 Hours of Nurburgring, and we raced on the old track, an it's a really tough track. But I don’t have any feelings involved or anything, because this happened in the past, a long, long time ago, before I was born. What happened afterward with my father, everything was fine, and he's now in great health, and everything is OK."
Niki Lauda recorded his final F1 victory when his son was 4, so Mathias has very few memories of his dad's racing career. "I remember a little bit of him coming home, and things like that," Mathias said. Niki also has not played an active role in his son's racing career, Mathias added.
"Not really. It was more the opposite," Mathias said. "He was always against it when I was young, when I was always asking to come racing. He was always against it. When I started my racing career, it was quite late compared to a normal career. I started racing when I was 21. Before that, I had a normal life -- I went to school, I finished school, and I started racing without a plan. It just happened. Someone invited me for a test on the race track, and it was kind of fun event for me. I went there without telling my father. And then from the first day on, my lap times were OK, and I had a lot of fun, and I just started on my own without help from my father. I knew if I asked him, that he would say no. So I started by myself."
And that path has led him, oddly enough, to stock cars. While Lauda still hopes to one day compete in the United States, his time in the Euro Series -- sanctioned by NASCAR since 2012 -- has offered a refreshing change from the politics and pressure he dealt with earlier in his career. He's simply having too much fun in NASCAR to do anything else.
"I enjoy racing now more than ever," Lauda said. "I hope I can keep racing here in Europe and in NASCAR Euro for many years. I'm pretty sure that the championship will grow a lot in the future, because it's already taken a big step from last year to this year. So what I want to do is be here for many years, and hope the championship will grow and I can be part of it. And if there's a chance for me to make a few races in the States, that would be a dream for me."