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speed shift

The Brown Guy in Nascar

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Narain Karthikeyan’s first six months in the fiercely White world of Nascar have been about grasping a new style of racing, watching grid-iron football, and yoga.

Almost six months have passed since Narain Karthikeyan’s debut on America’s National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) circuit. The acclimatisation process is proving to be a two-way street for both parties. Narain has been learning about life in the US and a format different from Formula 1. American Nascar fans have been getting used to the idea of a stock-car racer from India.

Nascar is a White American man’s world. Until now, it has struggled with its cultural image. Because of its lack of ethnic and gender diversity, it has sometimes been viewed as inhospitable to minorities, or even as racist. Only a handful of Black American drivers have dotted Nascar fields so far, while the move of another Formula 1 racer, Danica Patrick, to Nascar was major news in the US because of her gender.

Narain is a Coimbatore native who first raced in Formula 1. He has now broken barriers by becoming the first India-born driver in Nascar history. As a competitor in Nascar’s Camping World Truck Series for the Starbeast team, Narain has been opening eyes as he gradually learns the nuances of stock-car racing.

Now, a few months down the road since his March baptism, Narain is keeping his outlook sunny. 

“The fans have been great so far,” he says, adding, “Everyone is accepting me really well.”

“Narain brings a lot of experience to Nascar. He also brings a new culture,” says Miguel Abaroa, the owner of Starbeast Motorsports.

Narain and Starbeast see the global implications of Narain’s presence in Nascar. While the Indian race-car driver has helped diversify the ranks of stock-car racing, he’s also acting as an anchor for a potentially new fan base for the sport.

“We want to build a platform for Nascar in India,” Abaroa says, “Not only do we want to build a championship calibre Nascar team, we also want to create a bridge between these two countries. We want to bring a new option to people (in India) who follow sports.”

Narain, a savvy guy who likes to be abreast of issues like the circulation figures of publications interviewing him, is happy to serve as a sporting ambassador for a whole country. “I know there are a lot of people watching,” he says.

While everyone involved in the venture is enthusiastic about the future possibilities of Narain’s driving efforts, they are also keenly aware that it won’t be an easy haul, especially on the Nascar track, where Narain has at times struggled to adapt to a new automotive world.

Not only do Nascar trucks handle and manoeuvre differently from Formula 1 cars, the style of racing is also closer and tighter, with drivers constantly bumping, banging, and, as the Nascar slang goes, trading paint.

As a result, Narain has yet to set the Nascar truck series on fire in his first stock-car season. His best finish came in June, when he was placed 11th in the WinStar World Casino 400 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Most recently, Narain came a respectable but somewhat disappointing 14th in a race at the EnjoyIllinois.com 225 at Chicago on 27 August. However, the event represented one of his first experiences with night racing, and he did finish on the lead lap. As he reported on Twitter after the race: ‘Truck was really loose today, plenty of oversteer. Struggled from lap 1 till lap last. 14th & on lead lap was a great result, considering.’

It’s all been part of the adjustment for Karthikeyan, who retains a positive attitude despite his on-track travails.

“It is taking a bit of getting used to,” he says. “It is a completely different form of racing. But I think I’m getting better all the time. I know that if I keep at it, I could have a very good future.”

The future includes competing in the Sprint Cup series, which Narain and Starbeast hope will happen in 2012. The team plans for him to run a full season in 2011 in either the truck series or the Nationwide Series, the second-highest level of the Nascar competition. For now, Narain is zeroing in on his next truck race this year, the Smith’s Food & Drug Stores 350 in Las Vegas on 25 September.

At the same time, Narain continues to attune himself to American culture, especially life in the southern United States. Currently based with Starbeast in the genteel southern city of Charlotte, North Carolina, Karthikeyan has savoured his chance to explore the country.

That process, for example, included attending his first American football game when he was in Chicago, where he watched the Chicago Bears play an exhibition contest. “It was definitely quite exciting,” Narain says of his American pigskin experience. “It’s not my last (football game). I’m going to many more.”

Narain has also proudly retained many of his Indian traditions as he navigates the US. Yoga, for example, remains a staple of his daily routine; in fact, he attributes much of his racing success to the benefits of the art.

“I stick by what I do.” He adds that he’s always eager to visit his homeland—“to go back home, to my roots”.

Narain’s rise to the top echelons of motorsport has been well documented in India. Auto racing is in his genes. He’s the son of GR Karthikeyan and a relative of S Karivardhan, both pro drivers. Besides, Coimbatore is the cradle of Indian racing.

“I grew up in an environment that made it possible for me to be in motorsports,” Narain says. “I knew very early on that it was what I wanted to do.”

 

Narain began driving competitively nearly 20 years ago, when he trained at the Elf Winfield Racing School in France. He gradually climbed the open-wheel ranks by staking numerous podium finishes in a half-dozen series in Europe and Asia. In 1994, he became the first Indian to win a championship in Europe by claiming the top spot in the British Formula Ford Series. He continued to break new ground for Indian racers, becoming the first Indian to drive a Formula 1 car—achieving what had been a lifelong dream—and, in 2009, racing in his first Le Mans series (a European sports car racing endurance series), finishing sixth.

His drive to the top was sidelined last June when he dislocated a shoulder, but soon after, he was given another opportunity when Abaroa contacted him with a proposal—come to the US and become a stock-car pioneer.

While Narain realised that other open-wheel racers, such as Dario Franchitti, had struggled when they tried to cross over from Formula 1 to Nascar, he was also inspired by the Nascar success of Juan Pablo Montoya, another driver who made the leap from open-wheel to stock cars.

With Montoya as a guide and Starbeast Motorsports pledging its full support, the decision to jump to Nascar was ultimately an easy one for Karthikeyan. It was also an easy choice for Abaroa, who founded Starbeast Motorsports expressly to connect the world’s cultures by achieving auto racing success.

Abaroa saw Karthikeyan as an experienced, successful driver with the poise and charisma the team owner was looking for to fulfill Starbeast’s goals. Abaroa believes that by tapping into the Indian market, Starbeast can attract the type of sponsorship that could lead to financial success as well. Abaroa, however, cannot hope for huge, cricket-like numbers. Only Formula 1 has a following in India, that too from a relatively small, largely metropolitan fan base. 

But Starbeast is lucky in that Neo Sports, a TV channel, quickly signed a contract to broadcast in India all of the driver’s truck races in 2010. The network also shows all the competitions in Nascar’s Sprint Cup series, the highest level of stock-car racing in the world.

Neo Sports endeavours to push the cause of Indian sports in all ways possible,’ says Mautik Tolia, the channel’s executive vice-president for programming, in an e-mail interview. ‘Our objective is to showcase the sporting feats of Indian sportsmen such as Narain Karthikeyan who epitomise the new breed of Indian sportsmen who have the confidence, abilities and skills to compete with the very best in the world.’

‘Apart from this,’ Tolia adds, ‘we believe there is a huge market potential for stock car racing given the overall interest level in motorsport (in India).’

Tolia says Narain is the perfect ambassador for such an endeavour. 

‘He epitomises the new India. It is an India that has the confidence to take on the best in the world and win. He infuses this attitude, and this is the reason why he enjoys cult status among Indians.’

These thoughts are echoed by Abaroa, who, as a native of Mexico himself, has brought diversity to stock-car racing by becoming one of its few minority team owners. With American audiences embracing him with open arms, the transition to a new world has been more or less happy for Narain.

“Narain has enjoyed (his time in America) a lot,” Abaroa says. “Narain has adjusted pretty well, and he likes it a lot. He wants to stay here for a long time.”