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June 7, 2023

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut for 23XI Racing at Indy Road Course

Kamui Kobayashi poses alongside the No. 67 Toyota at the NASCAR display at Le Mans, France
Chris Graythen
Getty Images

LE MANS, France — Toyota and 23XI Racing announced Wednesday that sports-car ace Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut in the Cup Series event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on Aug. 13.

The announcement was made at the NASCAR display at the Circuit de la Sarthe’s manufacturer village in Le Mans, with NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France among the dignitaries in attendance. Kobayashi is competing in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota Gazoo Racing in the Hypercar class. He has two wins already this season in FIA World Endurance Championship competition, where he is a two-time champ, but said he was eager to explore a new motorsports discipline in NASCAR.

“I think NASCAR is kind of like baseball. It’s something different in the culture of motorsports compared to Japan and Europe, and it’s NASCAR, and as a driver, it’s an American dream,” Kobayashi said. “I was lucky as I was able to race in IMSA the last couple of years. It’s a different way of racing, but I think as racing technology, it’s really at a high level. I really appreciate this opportunity from TRD, U.S.A., and of course, Toyota Motor North America and Toyota Gazoo Racing.

“For us, especially the Japanese people, Toyota has been in NASCAR for a while, and I don’t think any other Japanese driver has been in a Toyota racing in the Cup Series. I’m very proud of this opportunity.”

RELATED: Cup Series schedule | Le Mans race week schedule

Kobayashi is set to drive the No. 67 Toyota Camry TRD, a third entry that will compete alongside 23XI Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace on the 2.439-mile IMS circuit. The last time 23XI fielded a third car, action-sports star Travis Pastrana drove it to an 11th-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500.

Kobayashi becomes just the second driver from Japan to enter a Cup Series race, but the first to do so in a Toyota; Hideo Fukuyama made four Cup starts between 2002-03, and three other drivers from Japan — Akinori Ogata, Kenko Miura and Shigeaki Hattori — have competed in Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series events. It’s another effort for the automaker to broaden its reach within the NASCAR world.

“To have Kamui carrying a global flag with him to our sport, we’ll put some eyeballs on it that we haven’t had before,” said David Wilson, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA president. “And then, focusing narrower to Japanese drivers, I would say we have even broader goals for global drivers and aspirations. So European kids who maybe have a frame of reference that goes through Formula 1, maybe this opens another for ‘Well, why not NASCAR?’ “

The 36-year-old Kobayashi has had a varied racing career after a start in karting, which eventually led to a prime scholarship spot with Toyota’s Young Drivers initiative. He progressed to a stint in Formula 1 with the automaker and now races in the Supra Formula Series along with his sports-car duties. That wide list of experience, Kobayashi says, doesn’t include driving a stock car, and he marveled at his first sight of one once his No. 67 entry was unveiled Wednesday at Le Mans.

Kobayashi joins a growing number of newcomers from other series to recently give NASCAR a try. One of the most recent examples came in late March at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, where former F1 champs Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen joined sports-car standout and Garage 56 reserve driver Jordan Taylor in providing some new faces on the entry list. Kobayashi said he watched the full race with interest.

“Actually, I like this type of racing because you bump each other all the time, and you have to be very sharp on the start, otherwise, you lose all the momentum, and you’re going backwards, and you have no chance,” Kobayashi said. “I think the way they race is different, but I like it because I think this is something the driver brings instead of the car bringing something.”

Räikkönen’s participation was part of the Trackhouse Racing Project 91 initiative to provide opportunities for global motorsports stars. Wilson said that “Project 67” had served as a sort of internal codename for the part-time 23XI effort with a similar intent of broadening stock-car racing’s audience.

“We are absolutely open to using this as a platform to bring in other drivers on occasion,” Wilson said. “Now, the challenging part, of course, is you want to do it well, right. And you want to make sure that we give Kamui the best experience. We take this very personally because it is some heavy lifting with the regular lot, and so if future opportunities present themselves, we certainly have the seats, we certainly have the willingness of our friends from 23XI — Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin, Steve Lauletta. They had Travis Pastrana in a car at Daytona, so certainly, we’re open to further opportunities down the road.”

Kobayashi said the opportunity emerged for the Indianapolis race primarily because of scheduling, given his busy racing workload. He also said he was focused on debuting on a road course but that the Chicago Street Race on July 2 was “too close, so we decided to look at Indianapolis to be safe.”

Kobayashi said his preparation time still may be short, and he indicated he plans for two days of racing simulator prep, plus a potential test of a Next Gen stock car on a test track. Leaning on Toyota teammates for information will also be a resource. “With on-track opportunities, we are limited,” he said, “but with experience and knowledge, we have some of the best for this form of racing.”

Kobayashi also said that he hopes his Cup Series debut might open the door for other Japanese drivers to explore stock-car racing and that a solid showing could pave that path.

“I will try my best, but I’m very thankful for this opportunity and happy to be in this position,” Kobayashi said. “For Toyota and for the entire family, I think this will create something new for us. Now we have to finalize all the small details, but at the end of the day, I think a strong performance would help with future possibilities.”