NASCARs European union

Now with official backing from NASCAR, the burgeoning Euro-Racecar series offers drivers ‘over here’ a genuine route into the wide world of stock car racing ‘over there’

There must be more sensible ways to ease into our first taste of the track in 2012. Brands Hatch is cold, and damp. In fact it’s so cold that two of the three cars testing today are in the pits having gravel washed out from their underbellies after hitting ice in the braking zone for Druids. Oh good. To make matters worse the car Motor Sport is about to jump into is a Euro-Racecar – a NASCAR lookalike with a 450bhp V8 under the bonnet. Piece of cake.

The only one not to visit the gravel trap is out on track when we arrive, tiptoeing around the wet patches. As it roars down the relatively dry pit straight, changing up through its four-speed manual ’box, it makes a similar sound to Brian Blessed and Zeus having a shouting match. Arrrrgh. Short pause, into fourth. Arrrrgh. The cars are restricted to ‘noisy days’ at the tracks they race on – and we can hear why.

The car looks much like a NASCAR – and technically, as of this year, that’s exactly what it is. Euro-Racecar founder Jérôme Galpin has pulled off a significant coup: his series has gone into partnership with the giant of American stock car racing and is ‘officially recognised’ by NASCAR. Huge kudos for a European series, and importantly it also gives NASCAR a useful foothold on this side of the Atlantic.

Euro-Racecar was started in 2009 by Galpin’s company Team FJ and ran as an FFSA series (the French national sporting authority – Federation Français du Sport Automobile). With no way for European drivers to get a taste of NASCAR this side of the water, Galpin waskeen to provide a cheap proving ground for European talent.

“I was born into a racing family and I’ve driven rally cars since I was 18,” he says once we’ve found our way into the relative warmth of the Brands media suite. “I started going to NASCAR events in the USA about 10 years ago and I loved the way they did things, like the entertainment side of it. It just makes it more interesting.

“We started to meet people and actually began doing business over there by importing things like Sunoco fuel into France, along with Mustangs and Chargers. We soon decided that we wanted to start an American series in Europe and set about working on a car.

“In my experience there are a lot of announcements [about new series] with no weight behind them so we decided to design the car, and make it, before saying too much. We are a small French company and we don’t have a manufacturer behind us so we needed a really good car to attract attention. We also wanted to get the FIA safety structure certification straight away. It would allow us to grow into something bigger if we wanted to whereas if we went for the standard safety certification we would be looking at a re-design sooner rather than later.”

The car was launched in June 2008 and come the first race of 2009, at Nogaro in France, there were 16 cars on the grid. All seven rounds in 2009 were in France, but in 2010 there wasone further afield – at the Nürburgring. In 2011 the championship became a fully-fledged international series under the FIA and the grids were up to 25 cars. “We evolved step by step,” Galpin explains, “and this year we have entered into a partnership with NASCAR.”

This is where the story of Euro-Racecar differs substantially from that of Eurocar, ASCAR (which still exists as the European Late Models Series) and Speedcar, the previous attempts at echoing NASCAR ‘over here’. With backing from the FIA and NASCAR itself, the American stock car world now has a legitimate foothold in Europe. To complete the link over the Atlantic, if you win the Euro-Racecar Elite Championship – for professional drivers – you win a race in a pukka NASCAR event. “In
2009 and ’10 we entered our champion into the Toyota All-Star Showdown, which is a great half-mile race that brings together the East and the West [regional] series in the USA,” says Galpin. “There are 42 cars on the track and it’s got live coverage on Speed TV. I would like to try and enter our 2011 champion [1993 Le Mans 24 Hours winner Eric Hélary] into a road course event, maybe the K&N Pro Series West round at Infineon [Sears Point], as that’swhere all the young guys are before turning professional. Sadly we don’t have the budget for a Sprint Cup race, but I think he’d have a good race at Infineon.”

Ah, budget, we had to come to that. Well, there’s good news here. The car, which is built by Team FJ, can be bought new and race-ready for €64,000 (£53,500) plus tax. If that’s a bit much then you can always buy a reconditioned car for €45,000 (£37,600). “We want to keep the car as it is so that in 2015 someone can win a race with a 2009 car,” continues Galpin.

“We’re not a manufacturer that has road models to promote and just because we have a NASCAR logo on the side of the cars it doesn’t mean that the budget is going to double. Yes, I would like to add more rounds, but if you do that the budget does go up and I want to wait until the economic situation is better.”

Already there are six rounds in 2012 (in Britain, France, Belgium and Spain) with three races at each – one endurance and two sprints. The series is holding its British round at Brands Hatch for the second successive year on May 18-20 alongside the DTM race. The round in Valencia (September 28-30) also runs with the DTM, which happens to be in the process of talks to expand into America with Grand-Am – the sports car body that is, of course, owned by NASCAR. The DTM link also means that Euro-Racecar is covered on Motors TV, which is a huge attraction to potential sponsors.

Running costs are also reasonably priced at an average of €45,000 (£37,500) per season. The V8 engines may turn out 450bhp, but can easily last two years before a rebuild, which costs only €995 (£830) plus tax. One of the major factors in keeping the costs down is that the cars are all identical. Yes, you can adjust the suspension and ride height, but in terms of actually changing components? Forget it.

“The cars all have the same springs, even the same spark plugs,” says Galpin. “It’s not a car that you need an engineering degree to work on, either. It’s about having good drivers with plenty of skill. The cars were in Daytona in November 2011 [for a non-championship round] and the cars were racing at 175mph. Two weeks later the likes of Jenson Button drove them at 60mph in the Race of Champions. Everyone can enjoy it at any speed, whether you’re a total beginner or a professional.”

Both professionals and amateurs share the cars in the series with a sprint race each and then a two-driver endurance race. However, unlike most Pro-Am championships the pros can pick up their own points and are not hampered by the amateur they race alongside. In the endurance race the pros are sent out first and a flag is shown halfway through – they pickup their points and the amateurs take over. “We wanted the pros to get their points because in many of the GT championships it’s the amateurs who set the results,” explains Galpin. “All the pros are within tenths of each other and they make little difference to the overall result.”

Thankfully, by the time that Motor Sport climbs into the claustrophobic cockpit, through the window in true NASCAR style, the track has dried a bit. But not by much, and Galpin’s suggestion to ‘have fun’ seems a little inappropriate considering the fact that we wait in the pitlane for 15 minutes so that a stricken Fiesta can be dislodged from the barriers.

Out on track the Euro-Racecar is unlike anything I’ve driven. The wet tyres provide just about enough grip to tiptoe around the corners, but even the slightest blip on the exit will sendyou sideways. Once you’re pointing vaguely in the right direction you can nail the throttle and, as you change up through the very physical ’box, you do feel a little like the God of Thunder himself. It’s actually hard not to start shouting with excitement every time you have enough space to open it up. But don’t tell anyone that.

There’s no way I can pretend I mastered the car in the short time I had on the track. But I can safely say that, within two laps, a massive grin predominated over the cold sweats.

This is about as basic as motor sport gets. There is nothing sophisticated about stock cars – and that’s why they appeal. Every time you put your foot down, that V8 roars and the back end desperately tries to become the front, you know you’ve got nothing to go on but your own instincts. Eat your heart out, Tony Stewart
Ed Foster