After a successful debut in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in June, two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekström returns to the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota cockpit this weekend to try his hand at oval racing.
The 31-year-old Swede will get his first oval experience in an official NASCAR session Friday morning in practice for Saturday night’s Air Guard 400 at the Richmond International Raceway in Virginia.
After a positive introduction to NASCAR, he’s looking forward to trying a new form of racing. “It’s always interesting to do new things — there’s no doubt that it’s special and it’s not anything like the tracks where we go racing,” he said.
“The straights and the corners are different and the cars are different, but everybody is trying to go as quick as possible and that’s the name of the game.”
"Racing in Richmond will be one of the biggest tasks of my life so far, but I feel I am ready for the challenge." –Mattias Ekström
Ekström certainly showed he could run with the big names in NASCAR in his Sprint Cup debut at California’s Infineon Raceway where he led seven laps and challenged for a top-10 finish.
That possibility evaporated suddenly late in the race when he was spun by NASCAR bad boy Brad Keselowski while running 11th. He finished on the lead lap in 21st – an impressive performance after qualifying 38th.
In Richmond, Ekström replaces Reed Sorenson who has been on a bit of a run of late, putting together a pair of top-15 finishes in his last two races. In all, Sorenson has made eight starts in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota and scored three top-15s with his best result being an eighth in the 400-mile tilt at the Daytona International Raceway in early July.
His teammate Scott Speed is coming off a disappointing night in Atlanta last weekend where a blown engine ruined a promising race. Speed is 27th overall in points with 11 races to go in 2010.
While making the switch from DTM to stock cars at the twisty Sonoma circuit was a matter of degrees for veteran road racer Ekström, translating his considerable experience into success on an oval might be a bit more difficult.
Stepping into a Cup car on an oval and finding speed has been elusive to most road racers who make the move to NASCAR.
“It just takes some time,” said veteran road racer Ron Fellows. “It’s three or four years either way; that's what it appears to be. But the guys who are good racers will figure it out.”
Fellows’ cited the experience of talented racers such as former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya and ex-Champ Car driver A.J. Allmendinger, who raced for Team Red Bull in 2008, who have needed several years to find their feet on ovals.
Then again, Carl Edwards thinks it should be easy for road racers to get it. “It is strange, though, really because an oval is so simple — it’s a damn circle,” he said. “It’s always amazing to me when I see guys come over how long it takes to learn when you think that the oval racing would be very simple.”
In preparation for his oval debut, Ekström tested a Cup car at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia and at North Carolina’s 0.625-mile North Wilkesboro Speedway. Both tracks are appropriate venues to get ready for Richmond, which is a three-quarter mile, D-shaped oval with low banking.
Although getting on track in the car helps a driver prepare for oval racing, the big test comes when he battles 42 other cars in side-by-side racing with only inches to spare. When he gets in the middle of things, figuring out how to handle the car in traffic will be the biggest test for the DTM star. The challenge ahead is not something he’s taking lightly.
“It will be interesting to get back to the feeling of more power and a heavier car with no downforce,” he said. “Racing in Richmond will be one of the biggest tasks of my life so far, but I feel I am ready for the challenge.”