Former F1 driver Karthikeyan gets major mainstream U.S. press

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India’s original Formula 1 driver, Narain Karthikeyan, is the subject of a decently lengthy piece in Saturday’s New York Times.

The reason? He’s making a go of it in NASCAR’s third-tier series, its truck division. (Yes, the same one where Nelson Piquet Jr. is bumping fenders.)

And there are billions of reasons why NASCAR and others have an interest in his succeeding:

Coimbatore, India, is many hard miles from the asphalt-paved speed bowls in the United States, where a 33-year-old driver named Narain Karthikeyan has come to chase fame and fortune — and perhaps something bigger — in Nascar’s truck-racing division.

Karthikeyan is a former Formula One driver drawn to Nascar. He has a ride with a year-old team, Starbeast Motorsports, that aspires to field a stock car for him in the Sprint Cup series, Nascar’s top level.

The faster Karthikeyan, the most famous racecar driver in India, drives, the more exposure he — and racing — get in his native country, which has a population of 1.2 billion. More exposure tends to draw more corporate sponsorship, and his efforts could attract companies looking to extend their global reach.

But achieving success, on the track in the United States and off it in India, may not be easy. Akshay Sawai, an Indian sports journalist for Open magazine, wrote in an e-mail message that Nascar remains a fringe sport in India. Cricket is king, and Formula One is the most followed motorsport. Karthikeyan will have to do particularly well to make an impact in India, Sawai said.

“Only the young urban Indian follows motorsport,” Sawai wrote. “But a majority of India’s population today is young. The number of urban Indians is still small, but they are influential. Narain is seen as a sporting pioneer. He may not cause stampedes the way our cricketers can, but the discerning see him as someone who planted the Indian flag in the world of Formula One.”

NEO Sports, a television network in India with 50 million viewers that is similar to ESPN, has scheduled telecasts of all of Karthikeyan’s truck races this year in addition to all of the Sprint Cup races, said Mautik Tolia, its executive vice president for programming.

[snip]

Karthikeyan said he was hooked quickly on the new type of racing. Trucks, like stock cars, race in much closer quarters than open-wheel racers. Having racers banging into one another is common. Compton and Kendrick have helped Karthikeyan adapt.

“Racing around vehicles is where the difference from open-wheel racing comes into play,” Kendrick said. “In open-wheel racing, they can’t bump. If they bump, they break something, and they’re out. But every time he’s in the truck, he improves.”

Not much to add, beyond my rationale for posting this: that it’s interesting he is getting this kind of coverage. It’s also a sign that Bernie Ecclestone isn’t the only one who sees the potential market in India (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia).

Not that a war could really be brewing between NASCAR and Formula 1, but… well… that would be interesting.

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