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Kobayashi: "To race in NASCAR was my dream" as a child

Le Mans 24 winner and former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi is the latest international star to give NASCAR a go, joining forces with 23XI Racing.

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid LMP1: Kamui Kobayashi

Following the Project 91 initiative from Trackhouse Racing, there has been a sudden push by Cup teams to bring in international racing stars for one-off starts. 

Former F1 World Champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button are the most notable among them. Three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen will make his debut at the Chicago Street Course race this year, while Travis Pastrana ran the Daytona 500 in February.

Pastrana drove the No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota Camry to an 11th-place finish for the team co-owned by NASCAR star Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan. That car will make just its second appearance on August 13th at Indy RC with Kobayashi now behind the wheel. 

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A lifelong dream

It's the perfect fit for Kobayashi, who said he "was for a long time" searching for the right opportunity to finally go stock car racing.

"Actually my memory, (the) first racing on TV was actually NASCAR," he said following Wednesday's announcement at Le Mans. "When I was like four or five years old. I said, 'wow, that's cool!' And the first time when I raced a go-kart, honestly I didn't know Formula 1.

"At the end of the day when I remember, what I saw when I was really young was a NASCAR race, because it was an oval. And I remember, the highlight, thinking one day to race in NASCAR was my dream.

Even after his career in Formula 1, where Kobayashi started 75 races and scored one podium, the dream of NASCAR remained in the back of his mind.

"I went there (to F1), I drove there, and then still (when) I dropped Formula 1, I said 'I still, I want to be a dream, NASCAR driving' ... And that's why I always try to be asking to David (Wilson) to have this opportunity and actually I think having the simulator a couple of years ago in TRD USA. And yeah, it was in Bristol, a very strange track for me. It's small, challenging, but still I enjoy and it's been quite different. I always keep saying, 'I want to try' and finally made it happen."

Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber F1 Team

Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber F1 Team

Photo by: XPB Images

23XI Racing have already won a road course race this year, with Tyler Reddick taking the checkered flag at COTA. 

There are six road courses on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, and the choice of Indianapolis came down to scheduling more than anything else. 

"I have a still racing in WEC and also I'm doing the Super Formula as well in Japan so obviously to find no clashing schedules as a part of a race in NASCAR is quite tricky." he explained. "And also, we need to have a lead-in time to have a simulator session, seat-fitting, couple of test days probably, I think that makes not fit at all for any other track. And the only one we find is the IndyCar track. So if we have more chance, definitely I want to do more but unfortunately, it was my schedule this year, (and) this is the only one we found."

Opening the door for future Japanese drivers?

Kobayashi will be the first Japanese driver to start a top-level NASCAR race in over 20 years. Hideo Fukuyama was the last to do so, making his final appearance at Sonoma Raceway in June, 2003.

NASCAR actually held three exhibition races in Japan during the late 1990s, twice at Suzuka and once on the oval at Twin Ring Motegi.

There is currently a part-time racer from Japan named Akinori Ogata, who has made a handful of starts in both the Xfinity and Truck Series in recent years. Could Kobayashi's decision to go Cup racing lead to more Japanese drivers turning their eyes to NASCAR? He seems to think so.

"I think the last Japanese driver being in the NASCAR Cup series is when, 20 years ago? So it's quite a while actually. Honestly I think yes. As I say, different culture of motorsports, NASCAR to our racing in Japan, but still I would say in this time globally when you look, Japanese people being in motorsports or (other) sports in United States is something (like a) big dream. We always say it. When you look at the baseballer, Shohei Ohtani, he's a very famous in Japan but he's been famous in the United States as well. We always call (it the) American Dream, and I think that's what we need to make (the) door open. This is (why) I really want to try, because NASCAR is one of the biggest sports in the United States and that's why I think always, if I have the opportunity, this is the way I want to try. I'm really proud to be here to announce it, not full-season but even this one race, I think this opportunity is important for me."

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