The Iceman cometh: Kimi Räikkönen's debut with PROJECT91 a decade in the making

·12 min read

Kimi Räikkönen will drive anything. And pretty much has.

From Formula One to rally to motorcycles to stock cars, Räikkönen is a pure racer. So consider it no surprise that the 2007 Formula One World Champion said yes to making his NASCAR Cup Series debut at Watkins Glen International this Sunday (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

A 21-time F1 winner, Räikkönen returns to American stock-car racing for the first time since 2011, when one-off stints saw the Finnish legend make one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start and one NASCAR Xfinity Series venture at Charlotte Motor Speedway, both for the then-fledgling Kyle Busch Motorsports. In fact, his Xfinity start was KBM’s first dip into NASCAR’s second national series, then working closely with Joe Nemechek’s NEMCO Motorsports.

Now, more than a decade later, The Iceman is back.

Social graphic of Kimi Raikkonen
Social graphic of Kimi Raikkonen

 

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

On Aug. 21, Räikkönen will make his inaugural endeavor in the United States’ premier form of motorsports, thanks almost entirely to Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks’ wild idea to form PROJECT91, a non-Charter Cup Series endeavor only to be fielded for the world’s most elite drivers. For Marks, the program’s opening act needed to be a definitive shout to international racing stars with the highest accolades.

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“I know and have known for a long time that there is significant global interest among the elite motorsports drivers of the world in participating in a NASCAR race,” Marks said earlier this month. “It’s a unique series. People in Europe and around the world look at NASCAR as this giant form of motorsports in America — which it is — and have an interest in trying that. But, and I’ve said this before, it’s been hard to break through. … The barrier of entry has been high.

“With a guy like Kimi, I figured if we were going to launch this thing, obviously, we needed somebody relevant globally to set it off. And the timing was right.”

Marks, a past winner of IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR national series competitor, had a mutual connection to Räikkönen. That kickstarted the process and eventually resulted in a plane ticket for Marks to convince a world-class talent to become his latest driver.

“I think a big part of it was me flying to Switzerland and spending time with him face-to-face and not putting any pressure on him, but just saying this is what Trackhouse is about,” Marks said. “This is the idea of PROJECT91. This is what we’re trying to do in America and this great opportunity that we have in this great motorsport. And I didn’t put any pressure on him. And I think that he thought about it.

“And you know, there was some unfinished business back in 2011, when he raced before. The whole idea was to do a Cup race, and he never got the opportunity to do that. So that’s all to say that the stars probably aligned pretty well. And I think he found somebody in me that he could trust and spoke his language. And ultimately, he made the decision to come do it. And I’m proud that he did and happy that he did.”

That 2011 excursion saw Räikkönen hustle the No. 15 Perky Jerky Toyota to a 15th-place finish in the Truck race, while the Xfinity Series event saw more struggles — in heat, control and hydration — that led to a 27th-place result, four laps down.

Clearly, nothing has deterred Räikkönen from returning to NASCAR — other than waiting for the right opportunity. That chance is here now.

“At first I wasn‘t really looking into this in a serious way,” Räikkönen said in a press release. “Obviously, we had more talks about how it would work, where the race would be and all sorts of things. It was just one race so it made sense for all of us as a family. I enjoyed it when I had my few races there (in 2011). Hopefully, I’ll have a good race and good fun. There are new cars there and I have never been at the track and things like that, but I am sure we can figure it out quickly.”

Kimi Räikkönen on the grid of a Formula One race.
Kimi Räikkönen on the grid of a Formula One race.

PREPARATION IS KEY

No part of the readying process has been spared — by driver or team. Marks and Co. whipped up a “preparation protocol” — a detailed list of everything Räikkönen would need in his 12 days before taking the green flag in the Go Bowling at The Glen. That included seat fittings, pit practice, a Chevrolet simulation session and more — and fast.

The driver was doing his homework, too. When Räikkönen showed up to the Trackhouse shop on Aug. 9, he immediately inquired about the intricacies of recent on-track events to find a better understanding before he even stepped into the car.

“He was asking questions about the (No.) 1 car’s pit penalty at Michigan,” Marks said. “He had questions about short-pitting stages and how to work strategy backward on the road courses. I mean, he has really done a lot of work and preparation. And that’s not surprising to me, because that’s what it takes to be as successful as he’s been in Formula One for so long. So, you know, I think from a speed and sort of preparation and knowledge standpoint, I think he’s going to be right on par.”

Aug. 10 was spent at the Chevrolet simulator for Räikkönen, who worked closely with Trackhouse’s Daniel Suárez, who piloted the No. 99 Chevrolet to his first Cup victory in June at Sonoma Raceway.

Räikkönen also was allotted time behind the wheel of one of the original NASCAR Next Gen prototypes in an Aug. 11 test session around Virginia International Raceway, a session courtesy of a June 15 update to the NASCAR Rule Book that permits a driver orientation test for elite competitors. The car was provided by Action Express, an IMSA program, with limited Trackhouse representatives permitted to work with Räikkönen. Mike Rockenfeller, a German sports-car ace and Le Mans winner, tested the same car later that day as he makes his Cup debut in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

It should come as little surprise that Räikkönen impressed everyone, quickly getting up to speed in an entirely different vehicle than he’s ever wheeled before — foreign even in comparison to his decade-ago ventures stateside.

“Maybe we did 50 laps or something today?” Räikkönen said of his test. “So without having those and the simulator, for sure going into 20 minutes (of) practice and then qualifying would be a lot more harder so at least we prepared as well as we could. So thanks to NASCAR, letting us have those few laps today. We‘ve done the best that we could, the most that we can, so we‘ll see what we get. And obviously a new track for me, so I need to learn it. But we‘ll see what we get.”

Suárez was present for the test and left with perhaps higher expectations than anticipated.

“It was short, but it was good,” Suárez said of the test. “I feel like Kimi, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can from him, because obviously he’s an amazing race car driver. But I believe that a race car driver that is great is not just because he’s good driving that thing; it’s everything else around it. How he thinks, you know how open- or closed-minded he or she is.

“In this case, honestly I’ve been very, very impressed with him. He’s having a great time. He’s not here just to have fun, but he’s here to … he’s a competitor, and he wants to do well. So it’s been a lot of fun to work with him the last few days, and I’m really looking forward to see what he can do [this] week.”

Streeter Lecka | Getty Images
Streeter Lecka | Getty Images

BIGGER THAN ONE DRIVER

Trackhouse isn’t the only entity excited to see what Räikkönen can provide to the race weekend.

Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion and winner of each of the past two races, admitted some giddiness in competing against one of the world’s best racers.

“It’s pretty awesome to have Kimi in the race and be able to know how much success that he had on the Formula One side,” Harvick told NASCAR.com on Tuesday. “I think what Justin Marks is doing with Kimi is unbelievable for everybody in the sport and the PROJECT91 vehicle that they’re putting him in. I think for me, I’m really excited for everybody in the sport to be able to see how this all progresses because I think it’s great for our sport.”

That came in addition to some playful jabs at his son, Keelan, who at 10 years old is a Formula One fan but is too young to appreciate Räikkönen’s excellence.

“I think that’s probably one thing that kids don’t do a very good job with these days is they don’t pay attention to the history,” Harvick said. “It’s all about the now. And you know, I think for me, I’m probably more excited about seeing Kimi on the race track than Keelan. He probably will say, ‘well, who’s Kimi Räikkönen?’ And I’m like, that’s the most ignorant thing you can possibly say. If you say you’re an F1 fan, and you don’t know who Kimi Räikkönen is, you’re probably not paying enough attention to what’s going on.”

The younger Harvick, a kart racer in his own right, is busy rooting for 2021 F1 champion Max Verstappen to make an eventual appearance in the No. 91 car.

FUTURE OF PROJECT91

That begs the question of what’s next for PROJECT91.

Räikkönen’s entry gained sponsorship from tech companies Recogni and iLOQ, the latter of which is a Finnish-based company that has long partnered with The Iceman. Those partnerships with Trackhouse were unsecured until late in the process.

Kimi Räikkönen and Joe Nemechek in 2011.
Kimi Räikkönen and Joe Nemechek in 2011.

“I was gonna personally backstop it just because I believed in (it),” Marks said. “I’m looking at PROJECT91 as sort of the launch of a new little tiny startup company within Trackhouse. And I was willing to sort of fund that out of our company just to get it going the right way, because I believed in its ability to attract corporate partners. And then in the 11th hour, we were basically able to sell all that inventory just at the end of last week.”

So who could be next to wheel the No. 91 Chevrolet?

There has been talk of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Hélio Castroneves joining the team for a possible Daytona 500 entry in 2023. Lewis Hamilton is among the names Marks would like to feature behind the wheel. But no matter who the program’s next target may be, Marks’ foremost priority is seeing its first endeavor through completion.

“What I’ve told Hélio, and what I’ve told most of the people I’ve talked to, is that I can’t really have any meaningful discussions about what the future of PROJECT91 looks like until we get through Watkins Glen,” Marks said. “One of the things that I have learned that everybody in my company already knew is that it’s a lot of work to field one of these cars, to get one of these cars ready for a new driver, to get the interior fitted, to figure out where you’re gonna get pit crews from, where you’re gonna get your people from and where you’re going to pull your parts and pieces out of existing 99 car and 1 car inventory.

“This was just an idea that I had and I got Kimi to commit, and I just threw it at the team. And now I’m learning about how much work it is. So every day, it helps me figure out what the strategy moving forward is. And so with that being said, you know, I think we talked about a lot of concepts and a lot of ideas, and a lot of things that would be really cool. But you know, I spent some time with Hélio, and he’s a guy that’s a perfect fit for what the PROJECT91 thing is all about. But we haven’t had any meaningful discussions, because it’s just we’re focused on getting through Watkins Glen, then it’s going to be playoffs, and then we’ll kind of reassess.”

For now, the focus rests upon Watkins Glen. Räikkönen will get his first real laps around the 2.45-mile circuit in Saturday’s practice session (12:05 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App, USA Network at 12:30 p.m.) before qualifying.

Then comes time to execute in the 90-lap Cup Series contest Sunday afternoon, where the vision of PROJECT91 formally becomes a reality.

“I think that honestly, probably the easiest and simplest part of this whole thing is going to be his rate of adaptation, his aggression and the speed of the race car,” Marks said, “because his level of preparation has been impressive to everybody here. … I mean, the way that he showed up ready to get fitted in the car, I have high expectations. I think he’s gonna haul ass.”