Germany's Klaus Graf could be part of a wave of foreigners to Nextel Cup.
Klaus Graf could be the point man, the poster child, for the kind of international growth NASCAR so craves. All he wants is to be just another full-time Nextel Cup driver, but he would always be more.
The 32-year-old becomes the first German to start a Nextel Cup race Sunday on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., for which he qualified 38th. Any success could lure more Europeans to the spotlight and rewards of North America's most successful circuit. Increased international appeal could fulfill the long-term dream of NASCAR CEO Brian France and seed interest in races all over the world.
That's big-picture stuff, however. Graf is focused on the view through the windshield of the No. 59 BAM Racing Dodge he will try to navigate around Infineon Raceway and past 42 strangers.
"There will be a lot of attention and a lot of guys watching me," said Graf, a veteran road racer and the 1997 Porsche Carrera Cup rookie of the year. "I'm glad that things worked out. I think a lot of people expect me to be a good road racer, but my goal is to finally be a good oval racer, too, and maybe a full-time Cup driver as well. This will, hopefully, just be an introduction into NASCAR Nextel Cup, and hopefully this is a good starting point and we can move on from here."
That would make Graf's introduction to NASCAR much more broad than as a specialist in the two Nextel Cup road races. NASCAR International, which has helped secure broadcast contracts in 151 countries in 21 languages, has identified Brazil, Canada (where it just opened a Toronto office this week), England, Germany, Japan and Mexico as its key new markets, and having a driver from one of those countries would be a gift.
"We think Germany is a tremendous motorsports market where we could develop a strong following," NASCAR International director Robbie Weiss said. "Having a top German pilot like Klaus or someone else is a good sign. It will take time to develop, and whether it's Klaus or (Brazilian) Christian Fittipaldi or (Canadian) Ron Fellows, there is certainly the start of a wave that was not there three years ago.
"We went from almost no foreign drivers to about 15 different ones who currently are participating (in some NASCAR-sanctioned series) or are attempting to, and they all hail from the six key markets."
Japan's Hideo Fukuyama and a handful of English drivers have run NASCAR races.
NASCAR could have added a high-profile Canadian this weekend if Richard Childress had his way. Owner of a three-car team, Childress has tried since November to arrange at least a test for Champ Car champion Paul Tracy, and according to speedchannel.com, Childress offered him a chance to race at Sonoma. But Tracy was denied permission, according to the report, by his Champ Car team owner, Gerald Forsythe, who also co-owns the league.
"Richard Childress offered me a ride last month but Gerry and (Champ Car co-owner) Kevin (Kalkhoven) thought it would confuse people and they would think I was going to NASCAR," Tracy told speedchannel.com. "I think it would have been good for Champ Car."
BAM Racing manager Eddie Jones knows NASCAR is interested in the Graf venture succeeding.
"NASCAR is very conservative and very close to the vest in their wants, and they're not going to just come out and tell someone, "Well, this is great, we'd like to encourage this,' " he said. "But NASCAR at the same time certainly has been very receptive to the idea and helpful in making everything happen."
Graf, who has raced sports cars - leading the 2001 24 Hour of Le Mans before his car broke - and open-wheel cars in his 14 seasons, was a test driver for McLaren in a Formula One ladder series before moving to Atlanta and racing sports cars for Panoz. But he had angled angling for a shot at NASCAR for four years after he started in the American Le Mans Series.
"We all know it is very difficult to break into, especially Nextel Cup," he said. "This is a very, very big thing. Back in Germany this draws a lot of attention."
Agent Christian Kune facilitated the partnership between Graf and the BAM Racing team that fields the No. 49 Dodge driven by Ken Schrader. Kune represents drivers in Europe and in various NASCAR series and had explored the possibility of pitching a driver to a Nextel Cup team. With the "political situation" right, Graf said, Kune made his pitch to BAM.
"He already had some dealings with some larger teams and felt like (Graf) was going to get lost in the shuffle," Jones said. "We have a growing reputation as a solid team, so he came and had a conversation with our owner (Beth Ann Morgenthau) and myself in December and put together a test to try and do a couple of road races and went from there."
Graf earned approval for a NASCAR road-racing license within two weeks, and he plans to run the Aug. 15 road race at Watkins Glen. But BAM immediately started preparing him to race on ovals. Graf tested at Virginia International Speedway in January, convincing Jones to field an ARCA car for him in a Nashville race April 9. Graf led five laps and finished third. Jones said Graf will run the October ARCA race at Talladega and hopes to have him approved for as many as six oval races this season if Graf's sports car backers agree to sponsor the effort.
"We haven't asked (NASCAR) to race him on any ovals yet, but they know it's coming," Jones said. "I told them it was one of our goals, and they'll submit to us a list of tracks they will approve him to try on."
Though the highly technical cars of Formula One and road racing are much more sophisticated than stock cars, Graf said European peers respect NASCAR drivers.
"I think the way NASCAR is, and the level of competition we see here, everybody knows that this is a very high level," Graf said. "All the drivers in NASCAR could do very well in any other type of racing. I am very convinced about that. I've seen the "Trading Paint' film with Jeff Gordon and (Juan Pablo) Montoya, and without knowing Jeff Gordon, he did an awesome job driving the Formula One car. He did very competitive lap times and was very comfortable, and that shows you professionalism and education they have is very high. These guys are just as good as any other drivers in the world."
Though sports cars, F1 cars and stock cars are all markedly different, the skills needed to drive each is basically the same. Once the engine fires, it's driving, Graf said.
"At the end of the day, stock cars are still a race car," he said. "They still have four wheels, an engine and a steering wheel."
But this steering wheel could turn NASCAR toward its future.