If art imitates life, then 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button is an example of life imitating art.
Last Thursday, it was announced that Button would compete in three NASCAR Cup Series races this season for Rick Ware Racing in a joint effort with Stewart Haas Racing and sponsor Mobil 1. Those events include the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) on March 26, the Grant Park 220 Chicago Street Race on July 2, and the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 13.
Button will also join seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and former NTT IndyCar Series driver Jimmie Johnson, and international Sports Car star Mike Rockenfeller at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 10-11. He will co-drive the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 entry fielded by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet in the internationally famous Sports Car Endurance race.
Last Friday, Button participated in a ZOOM Conference for Ford Racing to talk about his ambitious NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2023, all on permanent road and temporary street courses.
In many ways, he is fulfilling a childhood dream, something that inspired him to become a racing driver.
“For a very long time, I’ve watched NASCAR, for a couple of decades,” Button recalled on March 10. “Growing up in UK (United Kingdom) with four channels in late ‘80s, there was no sport outside European sports on TV.
“It was Days of Thunder that brought me to NASCAR. It was the first time I’d gotten to see NASCAR. It was a movie, so as an 8-year-old, I thought it was insane.
“It was worlds away from European motorsport.”
It was the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer field directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Nicole Kidman, Cary Elwes and Michael Rooker that captivated the young British lad back in 1990.
Although the film had a predictable Hollywood storyline, the action footage in the film featured real NASCAR Cup Series action. In that year’s Daytona 500, movie cars were added to the starting lineup to film the racing action. Later than year, additional movie cars were used to film action at Darlington Raceway.
“That got me in the door of liking NASCAR,” Button recalled. “It’s so different from what I’m used to, that’s probably what stopped me asking the question of would I be able to race in NASCAR because it’s so different to anything I’ve driven before.
“Back then, it was more ovals, no street courses. That didn’t excite me so much because another skillset all together.
“Now there are more road courses. It’s definitely more enticing. I think I’d be more competitive. I watch races and see new guys with experience in road course racing, and they don’t find it easy. It’s very difficult. But I think that’s part of the challenge and why I’m excited about it.”
Famed IndyCar driver, 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and longtime IndyCar team owner Bobby Rahal once said European racers in Formula One don’t think Americans can “Drive a nail.”
Don’t count Button as one of those with that elitist attitude. Just like Fernando Alonso competing in the Indianapolis 500 in 2017 and 2020, Button isn’t afraid to try the challenge of a different form of racing that is uniquely American.
“I’ve looked at NASCAR as super cool to watch,” Button said. “It’s very cool, but I can’t really relate to it because it’s so different. I think because we have more road courses now, and you see the cars on road courses now, and they look like a hand full.
“The racing is amazing, but it’s proper cool to watch.
“I think 10-15 years ago, you had a few guys good on the road courses. A lot of them hadn’t raced road courses, so it would be like me jumping into the Daytona 500 on an oval. I think that’s changed over time.
“Now you look at grid in the Cup Series, they’re all super talented on ovals and road courses. That’s added to the excitement for people watching. See Kimi Raikkonen, Joey Hand and see it is really competitive. That makes you think, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ You get even more excitement and interest in the sport, because there is such a high level of talent there.”
Button’s NASCAR adventure will be on race courses that he understands the most – the street and road courses.
Driving on a high-speed oval such as the Daytona 500 is something Button is ready to challenge for a variety of reasons.
“It’s not just driving a racing car — you can get to grips with it over time,” he explained. “It’s the racing that’s a lot more difficult.
“Having cars all around you, having a spotter telling you who is where. A lot of the time you’re stuck in the middle and can’t do much. It’s just a very different type of racing. That’s the bit that would take a while.
“I can go drive an oval and get to grips with it, especially Daytona where it’s flat all the way around. But it’s when you’ve got other cars in the equation with the drafting and pushing. It’s a lot to learn.
“Doing that in the Cup Series probably isn’t the best way to be jumping in a Cup car at Daytona. I think it might be better to do it in a lower category first and get experience that way.”
Button’s Formula One career came in the high-pressure environment where even teammates can be perceived as the enemy.
In NASCAR, rivals are often considered friends.
“The atmosphere is great,” Button said. “That’s what I love about all the different series in NASCAR. The family atmosphere that really got me.
“Speaking to Jimmie Johnson, he says my kids are playing with everyone else’s kids, it’s that part of it that really adds to the interest for me.”
Button will be one of two former Formula One World Champions that will compete in the NASCAR Cup Series race at COTA. Raikkonen will return to the PROJECT91 ride, which is part of Trackhouse.
Raikkonen has competed at COTA in eight Formula One Grands Prix and was the winner of the United States Grand Prix in 2018.
Button has competed in five Formula One Grands Prix at COTA with a best finish of fifth in the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes in 2021. He was also sixth in the McLaren Honda in 2015.
“I’ve raced COTA quite a few times in an F1 car,” Button said. “I tested in the Garage 56 car, and everyone was saying, ‘Oh, it’s easy for you. You’ve driven here in an F1 car.’ Well, it’s a little different in an F1 car. You basically drive a different circuit.
“For me to get to grips with a big car, a stock car, the tests last week did help. Even though it’s a very different kind of car. I enjoy the track. It’s flowing.
“In an F1 car, it’s just awesome. You go through Turn 1 and through the esses to Turn 9, it’s just change of direction after change of direction. You put one foot wrong at Turn 3, and that affects you down to Turn 9. I think we all love that as drivers. Very much like the Suzuka esses. There are some really good overtaking opportunities in an F1 car. DRS helps.
“In a stock car, it’s very different. It’s obviously a lot slower, and they’re going side by side through Turn 3 and Turn 4. Which is just crazy.”’
Button looks forward to the beating and banging; rubbing and tapping that come with stock cars on a race track. He believes it will be an exciting experience.
He also stressed that NASCAR racing at COTA has been very good, as well. Button watched last year’s race 20 times to understand where to put the car and the different styles of driving required for NASCAR at COTA.
“The race last year was really good fun to watch,” Button said. “I look forward to the action.
“And the city’s fun. Lots of good restaurants. I’m bringing my wife and two kids. Should be great.”
Getting a chance to spend time with the family at a race where he is a participant is a rare experience for Button. He did not get a chance to enjoy that in Formula One because of the pressure and demands placed on each driver by the team and structure of the Formula One World Championship.
“I don’t want to be negative about Formula One because it is an amazing sport,” he said. “I’m an F1 world champ, so I’ve spent most of my life there.
“But you’re so focused. Your family doesn’t come to the races because your teams don’t really want them to be there because they know your focus is so important. It’s very tough. Because it’s your life. It’s everything.
“Everything you do is for Formula One. I did it for 17 years in this world where you forget about everything else. It’s all that matters is making you a better racing driver and Formula One driver. So, when you step outside that, for me it’s exciting to do other things.
“With NASCAR, it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. The racing is very serious. And these are some of the best drivers in the world, but the atmosphere outside the car and at the track, it’s a lot more relaxed and family-based category. That’s why we like it because it’s trying something different. We’ve done something the same for so many years, so to go and try something different is exciting.
“Jacques Villeneuve raced last year. Kimi did a race last year. And everyone seems to enjoy it. It’s also because we love another challenge. Trying something different. We’re not just F1 drivers. We’re racing drivers. I also live in the States, so it helps with that.”
The origins of Button’s NASCAR Cup Series deal go back to a conversation he had with a representative of Mobil 1 last year. He spoke with Mark Humphries, Global Motorsports Manager for Exxon/Mobil last September in the Formula One paddock.
He told Humphries that he would love to get into NASCAR, thinking more about the truck series and the Xfinity Series more than the NASCAR Cup Series.
Humphries was surprised at Button’s interest and said he would make a few calls.
After exchanging lots of text messages, Humphries told Button they might be able to make it happen.
The last F1 race of the season was at Abu Dhabi, and the two had a proper meeting. Humphries told Button they wanted to do more than one race because it would be better for Mobil 1 and allow Button to get more experience.
The next move was talking to Stewart Haas Racing and Rick Ware Racing.
“It’s all been very quick how it’s all turned around, and I’m a Cup Series driver,” Button said enthusiastically. “It’s been a fun couple of months, but it’s been very tight to getting the car ready for Austin.”