Nelson Piquet Jr. readily admits that even his wildest dreams didn’t include racing stock cars in North America.
Being the son of a three-time Formula One world champion, he always wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and have a long, successful career in grand prix racing.
Even though astray doesn’t even begin to describe where his well-laid plans went, the now full-time NASCAR Nationwide driver isn’t complaining one bit.
“I never imagined that I would be somewhere like this,” he said.
“I always thought I would have the F1 career that my father had and that I would keep doing that. But I am having the same life I always imagined, only in a different country and a different series. I am very happy and comfortable and I feel at home.”
The 27-year-old Brazilian races the No. 30 Worx Chevrolet full-time in the second tier Nationwide Series with Turner Scott Motorsport after graduating from the Camping World Truck Series where he took two wins, four poles, and 15 top-10 finishes in 22 starts last year. He ended the 2012 truck season sixth overall in points.
Although he is considered a Nationwide rookie, Piquet already has a win in the series after taking the chequered flag on the road course at Elkhart Lake last year for Turner.
The road to NASCAR was certainly a bumpy one for the 2004 British Formula Three champion and 2006 GP2 runner-up to 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who now drives for Mercedes in F1.
Piquet achieved his goal of racing in F1 in 2008, joining the Renault team alongside two-time world champion Fernando Alonso after a stint as the outfit’s test driver. Less than 18 months after he made his first F1 start, his grand prix career was over and he was embroiled in a race-fixing scandal that made a return unlikely.
After being dropped by the Renault team midway through the 2009 season, Piquet dropped a bomb in the F1 paddock: He had crashed deliberately in the previous year’s Singapore Grand Prix on the orders of team boss Flavio Briatore and its executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. The accident was engineered to help his teammate Fernando Alonso to deliver a victory.
“I was young and under the influence of people that I thought I could trust,” he said.
“I listened to the wrong people and got into something that I should have walked away from when I could. There’s not much to be said except that you live and learn. I think having someone like my father around me more would have helped me, guided me and supported me a bit more and I wouldn’t have been by myself and under pressure the way I was.”
The Brazilian crashed on Lap 15 of 61 on the 5.067 kilometre Marina Bay Street Circuit, just minutes after his teammate Alonso pitted for fuel and tires. The timing of the accident was perfect and allowed Alonso’s strategy to work flawlessly. His Renault crossed the finish line about three seconds ahead of the second-placed Williams of Nico Rosberg.
After a year of legal wrangling between Briatore and Symonds and the sport’s governing Féderation Internationale de l’Automobile, the disgraced pair agreed not to work in F1 until this year.
Piquet received a pass in return for his testimony.
On track, Piquet managed just one podium and scored 19 points in 28 starts with Renault before he was replaced by Romain Grosjean 10 races into the 2009 season.
After leaving F1, Piquet tried his hand in a NASCAR truck, starting five races in 2010 and taking three top-10 finishes. His performance led to a full season in 2011 with Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick’s truck team. He finished his rookie year 10th overall in points.
While he quickly performed well, Piquet stressed that going from F1 to NASCAR trucks took more than tiny adjustment.
“It’s difficult to look from the outside and understand how competitive this is,” he said.
“I bet you anything that any of them (F1 drivers) could come here and they are going to be lost – they could do this for two seasons and still be lost. I don’t even bother trying to explain it to some people in Europe, because it’s just so different and hard to understand.”
Unlike in F1 where the car designers and technology often determine the winner before the green flag flies, Piquet feels NASCAR, where the racing is much closer, gives individual talent more of an opportunity to shine.
“You are racing every lap of the year: You have restarts all the time and you are having to race,” he said.
“In Europe, most of the time you have a qualifying session for an hour-and-a-half – you don’t really race to overtake, to block, and to fight for position. Here, there’s always going to be somebody catching you and you are going to be passing somebody, and if you are really good you can make a difference.”
His full-time Nationwide career got off to a spectacular start at the Daytona International Speedway last weekend when his teammate Kyle Larson flipped into the catch fence in a last lap wreck and threw debris into the stands that resulted in 28 fans needing medical attention. Two were seriously injured.
Piquet sustained some damage to his car in the last lap wreck, but he still managed to pick up an 11th place finish.
While pleased with the result, he thinks that Saturday’s Dollar General 200 on the one-mile, almost flat Phoenix International Raceway tri-oval will be a better gauge of his performance than last weekend’s race on a pedal-to-the-metal superspeedway.
And if all goes well, he sees himself honing his skills in Nationwide for a few seasons before graduating to the top tier Sprint Cup Series in two or three years.
“I have to prove myself on all of the ovals – short ones, big ones, and mile-and-a-half ones – I think I have to prove to team owners that I am good enough and it’s not only on road courses where I can win,” he said.
“I want to win rookie of the year and I want to be in the top-5 in the championship, and I want to make Turner ready to fight for a championship next year and the year after.”
Canadian Cameron Hayley will also be in Phoenix to begin his 2013 K&N Pro Series West campaign.
The 16-year-old started the year with a win in the UNOH Battle if the Beach, a non-points K&N race at the Daytona International Speedway in the run-up to last Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The Canadian, who became the youngest driver to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned event in 2011, races the No. 24 Ford for Gene Price Motorsports.
Saturday’s Talking Stick Resort 60 is the first in a 15-race season that returns to Phoenix for its final stop on Nov. 9.
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