Even before Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez ran 1-2 for wide swaths of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, their Trackhouse Racing team had already made one of the week’s biggest splashes with far-reaching implications.
The two drivers who dazzled at Charlotte Motor Speedway will soon have company under the Trackhouse banner for select Cup Series events. That news came in a dynamic 1-2 punch of its own last week with first the unveiling of PROJECT91, a part-time car designed as a NASCAR entry point for international drivers, and secondly the tapping of Kimi Raikkonen – the fast Finn who won the Formula One title in 2007 – just days later as its first appointee.
For Chastain and Suárez, the latest venture from team co-owner Justin Marks has the potential to make waves outside of the stock-car series’ traditional stateside audience.
“Dude, do we expect anything else from Justin Marks?” Chastain said before Cup Series qualifying last weekend. “I mean, my goodness, the guy goes and starts a two-car Cup team and immediately puts us all in position to win races and compete the first year together as what Trackhouse is now as a two-car team out of Concord (North Carolina). So it doesn’t surprise me when he first told me about it. It’s … OK, let’s do it. How can I help?”
Raikkonen, 42, has already dabbled in NASCAR with a double-duty weekend at Charlotte in 2011, finishing 15th in his Camping World Truck debut then following that with a 27th-place run in the Xfinity Series a day later. He’s best known, however, for his 21 Grand Prix victories, his brilliance with Ferrari during his title march and his super-stoic demeanor.
The opening of opportunities not just for Raikkonen but for the global motorsport’s community holds special meaning for Suárez, now in his second season with Trackhouse. The 30-year-old driver came to stock-car racing’s big leagues through the NASCAR Mexico Series in his home country. Now his team is striving to build a similar bridge for other international stars.
“It’s huge, man,” Suárez said. “I mentioned to someone just a little bit ago that I have always felt that here in NASCAR that I’m the only one that is a little bit different — where they come from, with having a different background, having to come from a different country with a different language. Right now, I don’t feel that way, but in the process, I felt different. You know, I felt like, ‘Man, I’m the only one that is coming from somewhere else.’
“And I feel like now I’m kind of feeling and seeing the similarities with PROJECT91 because Kimi — and it doesn’t matter who comes in the future that has a lot or a little experience that they come from different disciplines — they’re going to have those feelings, kind of like somebody that is coming from a different country or a different series or something like that. So it’s great. I’m really looking forward to work with PROJECT91 and to enjoy what they’re going to be able to accomplish.”
That eager feeling has proven to be infectious, reaching outside of the Trackhouse shop’s walls. Kaz Grala, the part-time pilot of choice for Floyd Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing outfit, said his No. 50 team hopes to compete in two or three more races this year. Grala has been pushing to make one of those Aug. 21 at Watkins Glen International, site of Raikkonen’s scheduled start.
“I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Grala said, recalling his reaction to PROJECT91’s driver announcement. “I love Formula One. I’m a big fan, and Kimi has probably been my favorite personality in F1 for quite a few years now. So I think it’s awesome that he’s gonna come over and do a NASCAR race. So I’m hoping that I’m in that field because wouldn’t that be cool to be able to say you’ve raced against him.”
That enthusiasm has potential to stretch behind Raikkonen’s scheduled Cup Series debut. Trackhouse’s PROJECT91 reveal included hints that more surprises were in the works, creating tantalizing speculation about other big names who might take a turn behind the wheel.
“It’s insane that Kimi Raikkonen is going to be my teammate, and the sky’s the limit on who else could do it,” Chastain said. “You know, he’s opened it up to anybody, and it’s incredible to think that any winning race-car driver in the world could put together a program to come run with us, so I don’t know who to expect next.”