'Days of Thunder sparked love of NASCAR', says Jenson Button, ahead of Cup and Le Mans races


Jenson Button will compete in three NASCAR Cup Series races this year, as well as at Le Mans in a (modified) stock car. it all stems from watching Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder as a youngster, he says

Jenson Button NASCAR header

Jenson Button with his Garage 56 Le Mans-spec NASCAR and, inset, Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder

Getty Images

Jenson Button may have driven his last grand prix in Monaco back in 2017 but the former World Champion shows no sign of slowing down.

After winning the 2019 Super GT series in Japan and sampling the WEC and rallycross he’s moving into the NASCAR Cup, and will be running three road course races in Austin, Chicago and Indianapolis in a Ford run by Rick Ware Racing.

Backed by Mobil, the project has developed in parallel with another exciting programme that will see Button sharing a tweaked NASCAR Chevrolet at Le Mans under the Garage 56 banner with series legend Jimmie Johnson and former Audi WEC regular and 24 Hours winner Mike Rockenfeller.

It will be Button’s second appearance in the 24 hours following his debut in 2018 with SMP Racing.

Having turned 43 in January Button’s current romance with the NASCAR world has happened late in life, but it has its roots in his childhood and his early days in karting. It was the 1990 Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder that first alerted him to the sport.

Related article

“For a very long time, I’ve watched NASCAR, a couple of decades,” he says. “Growing up in the UK we had four channels on TV back in the late 80s. And we didn’t get any real sport outside of European sport. So it was actually Days of Thunder that first of all brought me to NASCAR, because it was the first time I got to see any NASCAR.

“I mean, it was a movie. So as an eight-year-old [he was actually 10!], I thought it was insane, I thought it was amazing — worlds away from European motorsport. But that kind of got me in the door of liking NASCAR. And I used to watch it with my old man. It’s so different to what it used to.

“And I think that’s probably what stopped me asking the question whether I’d be able to race in NASCAR, because it’s so different to anything I’ve driven before. And also back then it was more ovals, there weren’t really any street courses.

“So that didn’t excite me so much, because it’s another skill set all together. But now there are more road courses, it’s definitely more enticing.

“I watch the races and I see the new guys coming in that have experience in road course racing. And they don’t find it easy, it’s very difficult. But I think that’s part of the challenge and why I’m excited about it.”

Lewis Hamilton in Tony stewart NASCAR

Lewis Hamilton had a tyre-smoking run in Tony Stewart’s car in 2011

Getty Images

Jim Clark famously sampled NASCAR in the sixties, helped by his Ford links, and a few other well-known F1 names also had a go, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Pedro Rodriguez, Jackie Oliver and Rolf Stommelen among them. However for decades, through the 80s and 90s, there was no crossover at all.

That’s changed in recent years. Juan Pablo Montoya was one of the pioneers, making NASCAR his focus from when he left F1 in 2006 until 2013. More recently we’ve seen the likes of World Champions Kimi Räikkönen and Jacques Villeneuve racing in NASCAR, while Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have tested cars as PR stunts. There’s an obvious mutual respect between the drivers from two very different disciplines.

“I’ve looked at NASCAR before as being super cool to watch on the ovals, short course/long course ovals,” says Button. “And it’s very cool, but I can’t really relate to it, because it’s so different. I think because we have more road courses now, and they look a handful, but the racing is amazing. It’s proper cool to watch.

“And I think sort of like 10-15 years ago, you had a few guys that were good on the road courses. A lot of them hadn’t raced road courses. So it’d be like me jumping into the Daytona 500 on an oval, it’s very different. I think that’s changed over time. And now you look at the grid in in the Cup series, and they’re all super talented on ovals and on road courses. And I think that’s added to the excitement for people watching.

“And then we see drivers like Kimi jump in, like he did last year, Joey Hand jumped in last year. And you see that it is really competitive. And that makes you think, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ And then you get even more excitement and interest in the sport because there is such a high level of talent there.”

Now a father of two and based in Los Angeles Button insists that NASCAR is a perfect fit. He makes an intriguing observation about how the sport has a family-friendly vibe in a way that F1 perhaps doesn’t, and that some of his peers have come to a similar conclusion.

“I don’t want to be negative about F1, because it is an amazing sport,” he says. “And I’m an F1 World Champ, so I spent most of my life there. But you’re so focused, and your family doesn’t come to the races, because your teams don’t really want them to be there, because they know that your focus is so important.

“And it’s very tough, because it’s your life, everything you do is for F1, and I did it for 17 years. And you’re in this world, and you forget about everything else. It’s all that matters, making you a better racing driving and a better F1 driver.

“So when you step outside that, for me, it’s exciting to do other things. And with NASCAR, it’s a much more relaxed atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, the racing is very serious. And these are some of the best drivers in the world.

Garage 56 NASCAR Le Mans car testing at Daytona

Le Mans-spec NASCAR testing at Daytona — with working headlights

Getty Images via NASCAR

“But the atmosphere outside the car, the atmosphere at the track, it’s a lot more relaxed. It’s more of a family-based category. So I think that’s why we like it, because it’s trying something different.

“We’ve done something the same for so many years. So to go and try something different is exciting. Jacques raced last year, Kimi did a race last year. And everyone seems to enjoy it.

“And I think it’s also because we love another challenge, it’s trying something different. We’re not just F1 drivers, we’re racing drivers. And I also live in the States, so it definitely helps with that.”

From the archive

Focusing on the road courses has ensured that Button will be at home in a familiar environment in Austin and Indianapolis He’ll be on a level footing with everyone else at the new Chicago street venue.

“The three circuits that we’ve chosen work out really well, because COTA I’ve driven at before, so I’m just learning the car, because you don’t actually get any practice before the race weekend. Now you get 50 minutes at the race weekend, I thought it was 15! That’s a bit better.

“And then the second one is Chicago, no one’s driven in Chicago on the street course, or driven one of these around a street course. I mean, it sounds nuts, but it’s the same for all of us. And then Indy, it’s different to the F1 track I drove there, but it has some of the same corners.”

Sonoma clashes with Le Mans, and he’s missing the other road course on the 2023 schedule – Watkins Glen – because it falls a week after the Indy event, and with only one chassis available the team won’t be able to do both.

Jenson Button talking with Jimmie Johnson Mike Rockenfeller and Jordan Taylor

Button with Le Mans team-mates Johnson and Rockenfeller, as well as ‘coach’ Jordan Taylor

Getty Images via NASCAR

Button is already getting comfortable in the car, even if there’s no opportunity to actually test.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with the team, getting to grips with the feeling of the car in terms of where I’m sat. It’s such an important thing for me, I can’t be set up straight with a steering wheel here on my lap, I need to be set back a bit more like a single-seater.

“And we found a position that works for me. And if I have that, I’ll have a lot more feeling through the car and be able to get to grips with it quicker.

“I have simulator time set up next week, which is great. And I’ve already done my seat fit so I’m comfortable in the car. So yeah, it’s simulator time, spending time with the team, getting an understanding of brake traces, throttle traces, lines, and all of the data that they have, because there is a lot of data.

“Obviously less than F1, because they’re not allowed to have more than they have. But there’s still a lot of data there for me to look at and learn from before I step out onto the track in COTA.”

Related article

Button admits that his Le Mans team mate Johnson, a seven-times NASCAR champion who made the bold move to IndyCars in his mid-40s, has been a big inspiration.

“Jimmy has been very useful, not just with this, but with my Garage 56 project. He’s driven stock cars his whole life. So we all know how difficult it is to shift from an open-wheel high downforce car to a stock car and vice versa.

“And I think Jimmy showed that the last couple of years – it’s tough. And I think he did a bloody good job, but it just shows how difficult it is, and how different it is. But he’s been really helpful.

“I said to him when I had this opportunity, ‘What do you think? Should I do it?’ He said, ‘Mate you definitely have to do it, you’ll have a blast.’ I said, ‘I’m in’. If Jimmy thinks it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be fun…”

The Garage 56 project is progressing meanwhile, and Button has already done three tests with the car, including one at COTA that should give him a bit of a head start when he returns for the NASCAR race later this month. He expects that the car will capture the imagination of fans at the Le Mans 100th anniversary event.

“It’s got a lot more power, I think it’s got four times more downforce. And the V8 sounds insane”

“They definitely will like what they see,” he says. “It does look like a Cup car with a few winglets on it, but we haven’t put a rear wing on the car because we don’t want it to look different to a Cup car. The diffuser is the same as a Cup car, there’s no difference. So, it does look like a Cup car.

“But I have to say it’s not the same performance, it’s got a lot more power, it’s a lot lighter, I think it’s got four times more downforce. And around a normal track, it’s eight to 10 seconds a lap quicker. So it is faster. But I think in terms of the way it looks, and the way it sounds, Cup cars sound insane. It’s just such a wonderful sound from that V8.

“And I think that’s what’s going to blow everyone away. That’s what I’m most excited about, it’s going to be a fan favourite, definitely, at Le Mans. And it will bring a lot more interest to NASCAR.”

So far things are progressing well: “We did a 24-hour test in Sebring. And we had one issue, but apart from that, everything went very smoothly. They are built very strong. And I was amazed at how reliable the car was over 24 hours. So that’s a big challenge for everyone involved, and to see that the car can do 24 hours with one issue is very impressive.

“And I think it really shows the strength of a Cup car and what these guys are doing. They understand what they need to do to make it reliable for four hours, but I bet they didn’t expect it would last 24!”