Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 world driver’s champion, says NASCAR should immediately capitalize on the buzz created by the Garage56 entry last weekend at Le Mans by taking a Cup Series race to Europe next season.
And really, the buzz was more of a literal roar as Button says fans who attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans loved the aesthetics of the refashioned Cup car as it participated in The Great Race. Button co-drove the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1s alongside seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and German touring car ace Mike Rockenfeller.
The car, which was powered by the same naturally aspirated, cast-iron small block V8 engine used on Sundays in the Cup Series, offered a different, throatier sound from the sports cars it competed against while lapping around Circuit de la Sarthe.
Button said he didn’t anticipate how those attending would react to the distinctively American racing platform but was pleasantly surprised at the noticeable ovation he could hear from inside the car every time he completed an overtake.
“The sound blew everyone away, this meaty V8,” Jenson Button said during a Tuesday morning press conference held over Zoom. “When you passed someone, they were cheering. When we rode around under the safety car, we waved at the fans and there was an uproar when the car drove by.
“I think it’s like the childhood love for racing, for me it was Ford versus Ferrari, but anything you would have on the wall that reminded you of why you fell in love with racing. That’s what this car represented at Le Mans, a car that just made you feel like a kid again, a gigantic V8 with that loud sound, and how quick it was.
“The lap times didn’t matter as much but I think it was the presence of the car, the sheer sound and size, that really made people interested. Granted, this was just one car going around, and not the action-packed races you see in Cup, but you can get people interested in this.”
Button says NASCAR needs to capitalize on the moment while it’s still front and center in the European sporting culture.
“I do think it can be big and doing a race next year would be great,” Button said. “We have to get the jump on what we did at Le Mans. I think it has such a big following, it created so many memes, I saw the craze on social media.
“It could be easily forgotten so I think it needs to be jumped on as soon as possible, so I think a race in Europe would be great.”
Is NASCAR doable in Europe?
Specifically, Button says NASCAR needs to latch on to an existing event, even if they wouldn’t be inclined to play second-fiddle to another sanctioning body. He says he isn’t sure that NASCAR has enough of a following yet to stand alone in Europe.
“I’m not sure it’s something NASCAR would want to do, but it would be good to jump on a weekend where there is another race,” Button said. “Whether it’s an F1 weekend, which is unlikely, or a (World Endurance Championship) weekend, because you have a big fanbase that’s already there, and it would be a good starting point for future races in Europe.”
Button says the largest obstacle to overcome in creating a fanbase in Europe is perception that NASCAR is a lawless discipline where drivers crash each other without consequence — a sentiment that has a degree of a merit.
But it’s also part of the American Stock Car culture as well.
“There are things I think the European fans will struggle with, the no rules in terms of how aggressive you can be on the track,” Button said. “I think that’s one thing I think that any of us who get into racing in any category, we struggle with that in NASCAR initially, because if you even tap a guy in any other form of racing, you’re probably getting penalized.
“In NASCAR, you can hit people, and it’s up to the other guy if he retaliates or moves out of the way. That’s the biggest thing for the European public to get their heads around.”
Button made his Cup Series debut in April at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas and was just flabbergasted at how aggressive the driving is throughout the field. He has four more starts scheduled for Rick Ware Racing in alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing in all the remaining road and street course events.
Button has learned in his brief foray in NASCAR that its personalities are its biggest selling points to offer the European public.
“The racing is one thing, but I think understanding the personalities of the sport is something the European fans would want to know,” Button said. “Just seeing 39 cars drive around is great, but if you don’t know who is behind the wheel, you don’t know who to support. It would just be about the color of the car like my son does.
“So, I think there needs to be a way for the European fans to understand the personalities as much as the racing.”
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.