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Button: NASCAR can capitalise on Le Mans buzz with European race

Jenson Button thinks NASCAR’s Cup Series should “jump on” the opportunity to race in Europe to build on fan interest stirred up by its Garage 56 project at Le Mans.

#24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 of Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button

NASCAR brought a modified Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, run by powerhouse team Hendrick Motorsports, to showcase a high-powered stock car to a European audience at the world famous 24-hour race earlier this month.

The prime mover behind the programme was NASCAR president Jim France, who wished to honour his father Bill Sr – the man who first brought NASCAR machinery to Le Mans in 1976.

Button believes that the enthusiastic response of the huge crowd at Le Mans proves that NASCAR could build a following in Europe if it brought its American stars across the Atlantic in their Cup cars.

“I think there needs to be a way to get the European fans to understand the personalities within the sport, as much as enjoying the racing,” said Button. “I think it could be big, and doing a race in Europe next year would be great.

“You have got to jump on what we did at Le Mans, and I think it had such a big following – I saw so many memes and it went crazy on social media. It could be easily forgotten, so I think it needs to be jumped on as soon as possible.

“A race in Europe would be great.”

Kimi Raikkonen, Trackhouse Racing, Onx Homes / iLOQ Chevrolet Camaro

Kimi Raikkonen, Trackhouse Racing, Onx Homes / iLOQ Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

NASCAR sanctions stock car racing series in Europe, Canada, Mexico and Brazil with lesser-specification machinery. NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series has raced at F1 tracks in Mexico City (2005-08) and Montreal (from 2007-12), and its Cup championship ran two exhibition races at Suzuka in the mid-1990s.

Button wondered if NASCAR could work with a World Endurance Championship event in Europe, to ensure a racing audience that might appreciate its American-style racing.

“I kind of feel it’s not what NASCAR would want to do, but it would be good to jump on a weekend where there’s another race,” he said. “So, whether it’s an F1 weekend, which is unlikely, or a WEC weekend – an endurance weekend.

“Because you have the big fanbase there already, and it would be a good starting point for future races in Europe.”

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He also felt that a behind-the-scenes, Drive to Survive-style TV show would help a European audience get to know the drivers and teams in NASCAR, to help them appreciate what it’s about: “Racing is one thing, and I think understanding the personalities that are in the sport is something that I think European fans would want to know.

“Just seeing 39 cars go around is great, but if you don’t know who’s behind the wheel, you have no one to really support – unless you just like the colour of the car, like my son does.”

He also suggested that more crossovers of international drivers trying NASCAR – like fellow F1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and Australian Supercars star Shane van Gisbergen with Trackhouse’s Project 91 entry – would be helpful in growing its audience outside of North America.

“I’d really like to see more drivers from the endurance world or F1 come in and have a taste of NASCAR, seeing how competitive it is,” Button added. “I never thought it’d be as competitive as it is.

“I knew ovals would be something different all together, but I didn’t think the drivers would be so good on street courses and road courses. [I’ve been] pleasantly surprised.”

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