Stewart enjoys car swap with F1's Hamilton
Rainy day at Watkins Glen doesn't dampen spirits as past champions trade rides
By Joe Menzer, NASCAR.COM
June 14, 2011 4:44 PM, EDT
type size: + - WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Calling it "the experience of a lifetime" more than once, Tony Stewart could not stop beaming after executing a "car swap" with Formula One driving champion Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen International on Tuesday.
And Hamilton, if possible, seemed even more thrilled about the rare opportunity to jump into what he repeatedly referred to as "a NASCAR" on a chilly, wet afternoon in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000.
What amazed me is that for two guys with two completely different builds -- Lewis is a slim, athletic driver; I'm a more, uh, robust driver -- the crews just did an amazing job in the cars in having the seats and the belts where they needed to be to fit us into the cars.
-- TONY STEWARTHamilton admitted he was nervous beforehand. "But I think they are nerves of excitement, because I never thought I would have an opportunity to drive a NASCAR [stock car]," he added. "To get to sit in a stock car and experience that is not something many of us Formula One drivers get to do. I feel very privileged to be here."
Stewart echoed the sentiment. He was apprehensive about driving on a wet track in what was at times a light mist, but the Mobil One executives who put together the event prepared in advance for the possibility by making sure Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet could be easily fitted with rain tires and a windshield wiper.
"I think I've raced one time in my career in the wet, and that was at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona about five years ago," Stewart said.
Hamilton laughed and admitted: "We brought a bit of English weather with us."
When it was suggested that it would be like riding a bicycle since Stewart once raced open-wheel cars in the Indy Racing League, Stewart chuckled.
"It's been 10 years since I've been in an IndyCar. And when I ran in the IRL, we didn't run on road courses," he said.
Nonetheless, both drivers made it through their respective runs flawlessly. Each driver took laps in their own cars before swapping rides -- with Hamilton going out first in Stewart's stock car.
They made their circuits not around the 2.45-mile course normally used in Sprint Cup events, but around the longer 3.4-mile course used in Formula One races that were held for a 20-year stretch at Watkins Glen until the last such event in 1980.
Hamilton was supposed to come in after four laps in Stewart's car, but accidentally blew past pit road and had to take another before coming in. Then Stewart went out and turned four laps without incident in Hamilton's McL
"What amazed me is that for two guys with two completely different builds -- Lewis is a slim, athletic driver; I'm a more, uh, robust driver -- the crews just did an amazing job in the cars in having the seats and the belts where they needed to be to fit us into the cars," Stewart said. "This was truly the chance of a lifetime for me. This is one more thing I get to check off the bucket list now."
Hamilton could not stop smiling after completing his lap and attempting a burnout on the frontstretch, much to the delight of the fans in attendance.
"I just felt like a kid today," Hamilton said. "It was good to feel like a kid again."
Both drivers were complimentary of the other's cars. Hamilton joked -- and yes, he clarified he was merely joking several times -- that because he hasn't been as successful lately in Formula One as he was when he won his championship in 2008, he might look to come over to NASCAR. To which Stewart immediately quipped, "I just want first dibs on trying to hire him."
Stewart later added that the Formula One car handled so beautifully that he may be spoiled when he goes back to driving his more balky 3,450-pound stock car. The much lighter F-1 car weighs approximately 1,400 pounds.
"I told the guys on pit road that it's probably going to make my crew chief a little more stressed on the weekends now because I'm going to want my car to handle like that all the time -- and we're never going to get it there," Stewart said. "I'm glad I didn't know what these cars were like 20 years ago because I may not have put a fender on a race car after that."
Stewart offered to build a Late Model car for Hamilton if he ever wants to return to the United States to run in the Prelude to the Dream dirt race that Stewart hosts annually at Eldora Speedway track in Ohio, a track Stewart owns. Hamilton made it clear that, although he sees his professional future remaining in Formula One, he hopes he gets the opportunity to possibly participate in more such events with Stewart and perhaps other NASCAR drivers sometime in the future.
"Us drivers over in Europe have a huge amount of respect for NASCAR drivers," Hamilton said.
The two drivers weren't the only ones left smiling after the event. The same could be said of Michael Printup, president of the Watkins Glen International track.
"We started putting this together two years ago. We just wanted to put these two great brands together, using Mobil One as the vehicle to do it -- with the two great brands obviously being the Sprint Cup Series and the Formula One," Printup said. "I'm a freak fan on both sides. I was like, 'This is a dream come true for me as a race fan.'
"I know I've gotten a lot of phone calls and e-mails. I talked to like 20 fans [Monday] from Buffalo and Rochester and Binghamton, just asking if it was still going on if it was going to be raining. I told them to come on -- and what a show they got to see."
Printup said he was thrilled when Hamilton came over the radio during one of his laps and said, "This track is absolutely fantastic. It really is." Printup said afterward that to see two racing series champions such as Hamilton and Stewart, a two-time Cup champ, having such a great time was well worth the effort of helping put the endeavor together.
"I was out there talking to them right after they got out of the cars, and you could see the big smiles on both of their faces," Printup said. "These guys race hard, week to week -- and like Lewis said, he felt like a little kid out there today. Tony had the same sentiment in just a little different fashion.
"It was just great to see them with those big smiles after running such a great race course as Watkins Glen."