Karthikeyan, who had stints in Formula One earlier, has a ride with a year-old team, Starbeast Motorsports, that aspires to field a stock car for him in the Sprint Cup series, NASCAR’s top level.
But achieving success may not be easy.
Karthikeyan finished 11th, a season best, in his most recent Camping World Truck Series race on June 4 in Fort Worth. It was the fourth race of 10 that he is scheduled to run this season on NASCAR’s third tier; the next is July 23. He said he was pleased with his progress.
But Karthikeyan said he knew that other open-wheel racers had tried NASCAR and struggled. That group includes Dario Franchitti, who started the 2008 season in the Sprint Cup Series but did not finish it. Franchitti returned to Indy-car racing and won the Indianapolis 500 on May 30.
“One step at a time,” Karthikeyan said.
Miguel Abaroa, a businessman based in Monterrey, Mexico, who founded Starbeast Motorsports, which is based in Harrisburg, said the team’s timetable called for Karthikeyan to run the full 2011 season in either the truck series or the Nationwide Series before he ventures into the Sprint Cup Series in 2012.
Karthikeyan had participated in six open-wheel series before signing in 2005 with Jordan Grand Prix, a struggling Formula One team. “In Formula One, nothing is equal, so I couldn’t shine so much,” he said.
He finished in the top 10 once, the controversial 2005 US Grand Prix in Indianapolis, when he drove one of only six cars that raced. Fourteen drivers in the 20-car field retired after the parade lap, citing concerns with their Michelin tires.
Karthikeyan moved to the Williams Formula One team as a test driver. He drove for A1 Team India for three years in the A1 Grand Prix series.
Then Abaroa called. He wanted Karthikeyan, India’s first Formula One driver, to become a pioneer one more time.
Starbeast had formed a partnership with Wyler Racing, for whom the veteran Stacy Compton drives a truck. Karthikeyan would also use Chad Kendrick, a veteran crew chief. By late March, Karthikeyan was ready to drive in a race.
“He’s a very talented driver who has won in every series except Formula One,” Abaroa said. “It’s just a matter of him adapting the right way to driving these cars.”
Karthikeyan said he was hooked quickly on the new type of racing. Trucks, like stock cars, race in much closer quarters than open-wheel racers. Having racers banging into one another is common. Compton and Kendrick have helped Karthikeyan adapt.
“Racing around vehicles is where the difference from open-wheel racing comes into play,” Kendrick said. “In open-wheel racing, they can’t bump. If they bump, they break something, and they’re out. But every time he’s in the truck, he improves.”
Karthikeyan finished 13th and on the lead lap in his first race, in Martinsville. After trying to avoid a rolling tire, he crashed early in a race in Kansas City, and finished 36th. But he has finished 17th and 11th in his last two races.
Kendrick said Karthikeyan raced side by side with three other trucks in his most recent race and did not back off. Afterward, the sides of his truck were smudged with tire rubber from other trucks.
He said he was looking forward to the rest of the schedule.
“The racing is very basic – so close and lots of fun,” Karthikeyan said. “When I got the opportunity, I said, ‘Why not?’ I’m getting the hang of it quickly.”