Show some patience, relax in the car, learn as much as possible, and have a bit of fun along the way…
That’s DTM star Mattias Ekström’s plan for his maiden NASCAR oval race in Richmond where he’ll take the green flag on Saturday night in the Air Guard 400. And if a top-25 finish is in the cards for his oval debut in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, he’ll take that too.
While he’s confident that his experience will help him run well in Richmond, finding speed on the D-shaped, three-quarter mile oval after cutting his teeth on the toughest road courses in Europe hasn’t been a snap.
“In road course racing, the corners are shorter; here in NASCAR they are much longer, and that’s a huge difference,” said Ekström, who has won once in DTM this season for Audi and lies fifth overall in the points.
"The only way to learn is to do it." –Ekström
“You load up the car differently from how you do on a road course. I have never said that it would be easy to only do two corners. For me just getting the experience to have a feel for the oval – how to brake and how to carry the speed and all that – then I think I will be fine.
“In our DTM races the G-forces are bit higher and it’s more intense over a short period, and here you have to be a bit more relaxed and feel the car more.”
Once he gets the hang of it, Ekström would happily try to fit more oval races into breaks in his DTM schedule. But first things first: he
wants to learn as much as he can before considering a second race on a NASCAR oval.
“The only way to learn is to do it,” he said. “What I will need to learn most is to get used to the tire degradation on the long runs, racing with others so close and giving enough space, and driving my race and putting up consistent lap times.”
Richmond will be the 32-year-old Swede’s second Sprint Cup start this season after he came home with a respectable 21st in his debut on the Infineon road course in Sonoma, California.
The two-time DTM champion continues to be unhappy with his debut NASCAR result, which came after he was spun out of 11th late in the race by Brad Keselowski. Without that incident, he feels the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota would have challenged for a top finish.
“I don’t think 21st was a fair result compared to the performance we had. I think somewhere between fifth and 10th would have been possible in Sonoma, if things had kept rolling and we hadn’t been taken out,” he said. “Here it’s a different story, but I think on the long runs in Sonoma everybody was able to see that I am able to drive one of those cars.”
One thing he made sure to do before his oval debut was talk to a couple of other road racers who made the switch, including former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya. While he got in lots of track time in practice and qualifying on Friday and felt at home in the car, Ekström still needed a bit of advice about a few things he hasn’t experienced yet, like side drafting.
"In qualifying, I certainly was not satisfied." –Ekström
“I know that when you pass guys here you have to do it differently and keep a little more distance because if someone is too close to you then you lose downforce and the car gets loose,” he said. “After speaking to Juan Pablo, I know that you have to have some patience to try to understand what is happening.”
And then there’s the studying required to get a handle on NASCAR’s lingo. For example, in NASCAR, the cars don’t understeer or oversteer, they are ‘tight’ or ‘loose’. And setting up a car to turn in only one direction isn’t exactly something he’s done much in his racing career.
“When I came here, there are different terms and you make different changes – I mean the camber on our DTM cars is always similar left to
right and here you set up the car to only go one way. Then there’s all the wedge stuff – cross weight we used to say – that we never use in
Europe,” he said.
“In general, the aero is a bit higher on our cars, but when you go into qualifying trim the grip is way improved because you tape the front and the downforce increases a lot.”
That huge difference between qualifying and race trim caught Ekström off guard and he struggled to get the car around the track quickly in his session. He ended qualifying with the next-to-slowest lap, which has him starting 42nd.
“In qualifying, I certainly was not satisfied – no doubt about it,” he said. “We were not great but we were okay in normal running in race trim.
In long runs, we were not too far off the pace once we got five to 10 laps in.”
The good news is that the car will go back to the configuration he used in practice when he hits the track for the race, so he will feel a bit
more comfortable in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota once the action gets started.
“The race is a bit longer, so you have to be a bit more relaxed in the car – once I get the hang of it, I know we will be a lot quicker,” he said.
“I would like to finish the race, start off with a car that is decent, and have a chance to stay with the field. It’s difficult to say what the result will be but one thing is sure I will fight and try to be smart and do everything I can to finish in the top-25. I will go out there, have some fun and take it for what it is.”