‘Van Gisbergen Effect’ of International Ringers Fails to Match the NASCAR Hype at Brickyard

  • So, what did NASCAR gain from having five international stars on the road course at Indy over the weekend?
  • NASCAR Cup team owners who added international driver superstars Shane van Gisbergen, Brodie Kostecki, Kamui Kobayashi, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller failed to catch lightning in a bottle.
  • Chicago winner Shane van Gisbergen already said he wants to go full-time NASCAR, maybe as early as next year.

NASCAR’s marketing and media relations teams worked overtime in the days leading into this past weekend’s Verizon 200 Cup Series race on the road course at Indy. It bragged relentlessly—and, perhaps, appropriately—about the “international stars” coming in for the weekend.

Its staff talked about 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button of England and endurance star Mike Rockenfeller of Germany. They waxed poetic about recent Chicago street race winner Shane van Gisbergen of New Zealand and Supercar star Brodie Kostecki of Australia. And they went on and on about Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi, a noted FIA World Endurance Championship star.

Except for van Gisbergen’s credible, lead-lap 10th-place finish for Trackhouse Racing, the results weren’t pretty. Kobayashi finished 33rd, Button was 28th, and Rockenfeller was 24th, all a lap down. Kostecki was a lead-lap 22nd.

Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 2 champion, finished 28th at the Brickyard.

Sean Gardner//Getty Images

This whole idea of international ringers can be called “The van Gisbergen Effect.”

When the virtually unknown (to most Americans) New Zealander won last month in Chicago, it seemed to spur Cup team-owners to look around for other road/street racing stars for Indy’s 200-mile road race. And for reasons known only to them, they didn’t look within NASCAR or IndyCar as much as they did internationally.

Toyota brought in Kobayashi and assigned him to the 23XI team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. For Toyota, it’s part of an understandable plan to expose its drivers to other racing disciplines.

“We’re talking about sharing seats globally,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “We’ve never had those types of conversations before. It’s a reflection of the respect that the sport is getting. It’s a reflection of the respect TRD is getting relative to our investment and commitment to driver development and things like what’s happened with Shane and what’s going to be happening with Kamui.”

nascar cup series verizon 200 at the brickyard

WEC champion Kamui Kobayashi finished 33rd on the NASCAR road course Sunday.

Justin Casterline//Getty Images

Rockenfeller was a last-minute replacement for suspended Cup rookie Noah Gragson at Legacy Motor Club. “Rocky” and Button had shared the recent Garage 56 Chevrolet entry at LeMans with LMC team principal Jimmie Johnson. When Gragson was suspended early this month—he’s now officially parted ways with the company—Johnson asked Rockenfeller to drive the No. 42 Chevy at Indy and this weekend at Watkins Glen. His only gaffe was apparently holding up Chase Elliott in the final laps as Elliott chased eventual winner Michael McDowell. Afterward, Elliott said of the road racing veteran, “Everything’s fine.”

Early this year, Button agreed to drive three road races for backmarker team Rick Ware Racing. The mostly-retired 2009 F1 World Driving Champion was a lead-lap 18th at COTA and lead-lap 21st at Chicago before his forgettable 28th at Indy, all in RWR’s No. 15 Ford. In this case, it might have been a matter of a capable driver stuck in weak equipment. (Joey Hand is scheduled for the car at Watkins Glen).

auto aug 13 nascar cup series verizon 200 at the brickyard

Mike Rockenfeller finished 24th as a substitute for Noah Gragson.

Icon Sportswire//Getty Images

Richard Childress brought in Kostecki from Australia, where he’s an acknowledged Supercar Series star. In this case, the chances are good the 26-year-old wasn’t just a one-off for Indy. He spent nine years in North Carolina, racing open-wheel, NASCAR Late Models, and in the ARCA Series. And although 22nd wasn’t much to brag about, Kostecki behaved himself and finished on the lead lap.

Which leads to Van Gisbergen’s impressive run. His victory on the Chicago city streets in his maiden Cup Series start made him an instant NASCAR “talking point.” (Not a legend by any means, rather someone to watch). He qualified eighth at Indy, led a lap, and stayed within sight of the leaders most of the 82 laps.

He’s already said he wants to go full-time NASCAR, maybe as early as next year. (Has he seen Bristol on a Saturday night?) He has contractual obligations with his Supercar team in Australia, issues he’s trying to work through. He admits the oval-heavy Cup schedule will be a serious challenge, but is confident Trackhouse Racing can make it happen.

auto aug 13 nascar cup series verizon 200 at the brickyard

Supercar points leader was a 22nd-place finisher at Indianapolis.

Icon Sportswire//Getty Images

So, what did NASCAR gain from having five “international stars” on the road course at Indy over the weekend? It’s likely that other Van Gisbergen only a handful of even the most fervent stock car fan cared a whit about the other four.

Did viewers in Australia and New Zealand tuned in to watch van Gisbergen and Kostecki and to be exposed to Cup for the first time? Is Button still big enough in Europe to attract eyeballs to the 9:30 p.m. start of a NASCAR telecast race? Kobayashi might be huge in FIA and in his homeland, but was anyone in Tokyo paying attention? And thanks to Johnson’s involvement, Rockenfeller is becoming better known here … but does it matter.

In fairness, maybe Indy wasn’t a good test for “The van Gisbergen Effect” because of the unique nature of the event. If he hadn’t won Chicago—arguably, one of the most overhyped races in NASCAR’s 75 years—hardly any American fans would know about him. He seems talented enough and personable enough to bring a strong package to NASCAR… whenever he gets here.

So, in the meantime, let’s wait a while before we spend too much time fawning over “international stars,” many of whom we may never see again.


Contributing Editor

Unemployed after three years as an Army officer and Vietnam vet, Al Pearce shamelessly lied his way onto a small newspaper’s sports staff in Virginia in 1969. He inherited motorsports, a strange and unfamiliar beat which quickly became an obsession. 

In 53 years – 48 ongoing with Autoweek – there have been thousands of NASCAR, NHRA, IMSA, and APBA assignments on weekend tracks and major venues like Daytona Beach, Indianapolis, LeMans, and Watkins Glen. The job – and accompanying benefits – has taken him to all 50 states and more than a dozen countries.  

He’s been fortunate enough to attract interest from several publishers, thus his 13 motorsports-related books. He can change a tire on his Hyundai, but that’s about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *