A day at the races with NASCAR driver Narain Karthikeyan

When you’ve got a dream like mine
Nobody can take you down
When you’ve got a dream like mine
Nobody can push you around

–Bruce Cockburn

Narain Karthikeyan is lounging on a couch in the back room of his sparsely equipped but nicely air-conditioned semi-trailer. He is dressed casually, in blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a “Starbeast Motorsports” logo on it.

It’s a hot and sticky Saturday afternoon in August in Chicago. e76b45a991abf3989dfb4db1ff1c4a45-3

I am sitting across from Narain, and we are discussing our mutual love of Indian food. The television is silent but turned on to ESPN. (A few minutes ago, when I asked him whether we could turn the television off, he politely suggested that we simply turn the volume all the way down. The man likes his sports television. It’s understandable.)

On first impression, Narain does not strike me as a natural-born athlete. He looks and presents like a middle-class Indian man in his early 30s, probably degreed, with a steady job and a pretty wife. He is quiet and unassuming but friendly. His voice is soft and his English has a gentle Indian lilt (he is a native of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu), and he comes across as a genuinely humble person—just a normal, decent guy.

But he is, in fact, far from average: Just a few minutes before we sat down and began to mutually marvel at the way great Indian food brings together the spicy, the sweet, and the salty in a delightful ensemble of flavors, Narain Karthikeyan was driving a car at over 170 miles per hour.

When you watch a NASCAR race on television, you do not get any real sense of the speed.

When you stand in the pit during a NASCAR race and watch the cars bullet by you, the speed itself is a character in this scene, and its archetype is the Monster: It is something terrifying and unprocessible; you can’t take your eyes off of It.

As mind-bendingly high are the speeds, so are the differences between winning and not winning mind-bendingly miniscule, with standard deviations that you need a microscope to see. These differences, whether in speed or in lap-time, are measured in thousandths (of a mile per hour or of seconds).

For today’s race—the NASCAR Trucks EnjoyIllinois.com 225—the qualifying run, which determines the starting order for the 8pm race, takes place at 3:30pm. In this qualifying run, Narain garners an impressive 9th place (out of 38 drivers competing for the 36 slots in the race). On the 1.5-mile track, Narain completes a lap in 31.327 seconds for an average speed of 172.375 mph; while Todd Bodine, who qualifies in 1st place (earning the coveted “pole position”), completes the lap in 31.063 seconds for an average speed of 173.840 mph.

Thus, in the qualifying run, the difference between 1st and 9th place, for a 1.5-mile lap, is less than one-third of a second.

The Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois has a 1.5-mile oval-shaped and banked track. Seating capacity is 75,000 and the stands are only on one side of the track, so that all spectators can clearly see the finish line.

Today (Friday) there are two stock-car races here: At 6:00 pm is the ARCA ANSELL Protective Gloves 150, and at 8:00 pm is the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series EnjoyIllinois.com 225 (the race Narain will be in). Tomorrow night the IndyCars will race here in the Peak Antifreeze Indy 300. At various times today, cars from each of the three races will be practicing or qualifying on the track.

NASCAR Trucks are technically pick-up trucks, but they are about as flat and low as stock cars, their cabs are almost as low as their beds, and they look more like cars than like pick-up trucks. In this article I will refer to Narain’s NASCAR Truck as a car.

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Narain Karthikeyan has been racing cars since he was a kid. His father, Shri G. R. Karthikeyan, was a seven-time champion of the South India Rally (an off-road race). Narain’s list of firsts makes it clear that he is by a huge margin the most accomplished Indian race-car driver ever.

In 1994, at the age of 17, Narain won the British Formula Ford Championship, an open-wheel racing series that takes place over several months. This win made him the first Indian to win a racing championship in Europe.

He then became the first Indian and first Asian to win the Formula Asia International Series; he finished in the top 10 for three consecutive years in the Formula Nissan World Series; in 2005 he became India’s first Formula 1 driver; he raced to team victories for Team India at the A1 Grand Prix World Championships in China and Great Britain in 2007 and 2008 respectively; in 2009 he became India’s first driver to race in the Le Mans Series; and in 2010 he was the first motorsports athlete to be awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honors. Upon the announcement of this award, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commented, “[Narain] is a true representative of India’s young spirit and he has set an example for the entire motorsports fraternity of India to follow.”

The semi-trailer serves as a home-base for Narain and his team throughout the day. The term used for the semi-trailer is the “hauler”.

The hauler has two stories. The bottom story contains a narrow hallway with a small kitchenette, and contains the back room with the television and couches.

The top story, just underneath the roof, houses the two cars during the journey (in this case, from Charlotte, where Narain and his wife and all of his crew and management live, to Chicago). A NASCAR driver must bring two cars to every race: the car he plans on racing, and a spare just in case of unforeseen circumstances (such as a wreck during practice or qualifying). This requirement also serves as a barrier to entry: If your team cannot afford two cars, then your team cannot be a NASCAR team.

Narain and his team are quite happy about qualifying 9th out of the 38 drivers.

Their goal is always a top 10 finish.

A driver who finishes outside of the top 10 will still earn NASCAR points and prize money; and though a driver gets more points for 10th place than for 11th, the difference is not disproportionate. However, I think that there is just something cool about finishing in the top 10. And NASCAR adds to this psychology: If you look at the official NASCAR point standings, one of the line-items for each driver is the number of top 10 finishes.

Colorful sponsor logos are ubiquitous at a NASCAR event: on the cars, on the drivers’ uniforms, and on the haulers. On this particular day, the infield is home to over 100 visible cars (for all three races this weekend) and over 100 corresponding haulers (each of which contains another car hidden from view). The haulers are lined up in rows throughout the infield. The cars are parked in permanent garages that are also lined up in rows throughout the infield, and in those garages the crews are working on the cars.

Narain’s car, the #60 SafeAuto car, is white with sleek red and black markings. Other than SafeAuto, conspicuous decals on his car are Starbeast Motorsports and wyler.com.

Smaller decals on the car advertise Craftsman, Featherlite, Penske, and numerous other brands.

At a few points throughout the day, I take walks around the infield and look at the other cars and haulers, and I jot down a few of the sponsor names that strike me as noteworthy:

•    Blast-It-All
•    Copy Wizard
•    DrivenMale.com
•    Gunbroker.com
•    Kids Embrace
•    Koma Unwind Chillaxation Drink
•    RedHorseRacing.net
•    ShopEZGO.com
•    TireMonkey.com
•    Zyclara (imiquimod) Cream 3.75%

The DrivenMale.com car is driven by—wait for it—Jennifer Jo Cobb, one of two female drivers in the 36-driver field. The other female driver here is Johanna Long, who is, no kidding, 17 years old.

Narain’s wife Pavarna, a native of Chennai, is beautiful, intelligent, and down-to-earth. She and Narain have known each other for 10 years and been married for 6. They went to college together in London and both earned degrees in Business—Narain from the American College in London (now American InterContinental University London) and Pavarna from Richmond University.

One of the things I ask Pavarna is how she handles her fear for her husband’s safety.

She says that at first she thought that she would get used to the danger, and that it would bother her less and less; but in fact she now realizes that this will never happen. The fear will always be there and she will never get used to it in a way that makes it easier to deal with.

But at the same time, she says that the fear is offset to some degree by her pride in what her husband does. As she speaks about Narain, she positively beams at her man’s level of accomplishment.

Starbeast Motorsports is a NASCAR team, and its only driver is Narain Karthikeyan. The guys who run Starbeast—CEO Miguel Abaroa and President Ted Bullard—are both here for today’s race. During various conversations with Miguel, Ted, and Narain throughout the day, something becomes very clear to me.

What this team is trying to do is more than bring a Formula 1 driver into NASCAR.

This team’s ultimate goal is something much bigger: to bring NASCAR to the people of India (and to Indian-Americans). And, in Miguel’s words, “Who better to make that happen than India’s best driver and one of its most famous athletes?”

These guys at Starbeast can and do cite statistics about India that support their contention that India represents a huge untapped market for NASCAR. And they don’t cite only things such as India’s 1.2 billion population and its booming car sales and internet usage and so on. They also talk about the social aspect of NASCAR.

One striking thing about NASCAR is that there is a connection between drivers and fans (and I will support that assertion shortly). And not only is Narain by far the most accomplished Indian race-car driver ever, but also he has the personality to connect with fans: He has an approachability that is disarming. In this sense, his personality makes him a good fit for NASCAR.

When I speak with Narain about this, he too speaks of the dream of bringing NASCAR to India. I push a bit more: Is there something else that’s also a part of this?

“I set a goal to be India’s first F-1 driver, and I did that. Then I set a goal to be India’s first NASCAR driver, and now I’m doing that.”

He says this in a matter-of-fact tone, and it is the first hint of a display of outward brash confidence that I’ve seen in him.

In a broad sense, we can divide race-cars into two major types: open-wheel and stock. The differences between these two types of cars and between the associated racing styles constitute Narain’s major challenge: Virtually all of his 17 years of racing experience are in open-wheel racing; and he is now driving a stock car.

To understand the visual differences between the open-wheel car and the stock car, imagine a bird’s-eye view.

On an open-wheel car, the wheels are located outside of the rectangular body of the car. There are no fenders, so the wheels are completely exposed. This is the type of car driven in the Formula 1 (and Formula 2 and so on) races, most of which take place in Europe, as well in the Indy Racing League (which includes the Indianapolis 500). All IndyCars are open-wheel cars.

On a stock car, on the other hand, the wheels are located under the rectangular body of the car, under fenders, in an orientation similar to that of the wheels on the cars that we civilians drive. From overhead, you probably see little or nothing of the tires. Stock cars are raced at all NASCAR events, including most famously the Daytona 500. (In fact, NASCAR stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.)

Open-wheel cars are flatter and lower to the ground; while stock cars look more like regular cars. (In fact, the name “stock car” comes from the fact that originally, these were cars whose bodies were unaltered from what the general public could buy; hence they were “stock”. Today, even stock cars are sophisticated racing machines, but they still look a lot closer to regular cars than open-wheel cars do.)

At something on the order of 1400 pounds, open-wheel cars weigh much less than stock cars (which range around 3400 pounds), and open-wheel cars tend to be much more technologically sophisticated.

Most open-wheel races (though of course not the Indy 500) are open-road races. In open-wheel, open-road racing, the further the race goes toward completion, the more likely that the cars are spread out, sometimes with long distances between them. Lead changes and passing are relatively uncommon. Physical contact between cars is to be avoided at all costs. Since open-wheel cars have the wheels exposed,  contact between open-wheel cars likely implies contact between moving wheels and auto body, or worse, between moving wheels and moving wheels. Because of this—and because open-wheel cars are relatively fragile—on the rare occasions of physical contact between open-wheel cars, the result is almost always a catastrophic crash.

Stock cars are typically raced on oval tracks with embankments, and tend to race very closely together. Three factors contribute to this close proximity of the cars: (1) The actual length of track is of course much less with the track being an oval as opposed to an open road; (2) cars that fall far behind are simply lapped, so that even cars that are positionally very far apart may be spatially very close together; and (3) during caution flags, drivers must maintain their positions but they can reduce distances between themselves and their competitors—therefore at the end of a caution flag the cars are typically much more tightly clustered than at the beginning of a caution flag.

Because stock cars race so closely together, stock-car races tend to feature lots of lead changes and passing. Physical contact between stock cars is not rare, and usually does not result in a crash, since physical contact rarely involves anything contacting the wheels, and since stock cars are relatively heavy and sturdy. Intentional “bumping” is common in stock-car racing, but non-existent in open-wheel racing.

Sometime in the afternoon I see throngs of people suddenly appearing throughout the infield area, walking around looking at the cars and meeting some of the drivers. I ask Narain’s crew who these people are, and I am told about NASCAR “pit passes”, which cost (here) an additional $50 each (on top of a $200 weekend pass for all three races this weekend).

For a good hour or more, a few hours before the race, Narain and Pavarna sit just outside the hauler, under a tent-shade that Narain’s crew has set up, and chat with fans who stop by, and Narain signs autographs. And many of the other drivers and their significant others do the same intermittently throughout the afternoon. And there is time and inclination (on the part of the drivers) for leisurely conversation to the extent that the fans want it.

I really cannot think of anything remotely analogous to this in any other major sport.

I am amused by the relationship between Narain and his crew. His crew consists of a bunch of southern guys, and clearly they all adore this soft-spoken Indian man.

A couple of the crew members tell me in separate conversations that they enjoy the fact that Narain is funny without even trying to be. This phenomenon is borne out in conversations I have with him, and I agree with the crew members—Narain always delivers his “punchline” in all seriousness, with nary a trace of irony. In fact, he seems too nice to say something like this sarcastically:

Narain: Does it get cold in Chicago?
Me: Oh yes. Sometimes there are days where it does not get above five degrees Fahrenheit.
Narain: How much is that in real degrees?

Narain is fond of the crew members as well. He says, “I did not particularly want to live in America. But honestly that opinion has changed in the past three months, and now I love living here. The people are friendly here, and Starbeast Motorsports has put together a team of great people and created an atmosphere that makes me happy. Plus, my wife always loved America and the idea of moving here,” he laughs, “so it is working out well.”

Here is something surreal: At some point while the ARCA ANSELL Protective Gloves 150 race is going on around us, I don’t see any of the crew members or the management team or Narain or Pavarna outside. I step into the hauler and hear a group in the back room. I go back there to join them. Narain and Pavarna and several members of the crew and management are crammed onto the two couches and a couple of chairs, and they are watching television, and the channel that they are watching is SPEED TV, and the thing that they are watching is a race, and that race is the ARCA ANSELL Protective Gloves 150 at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.

While we are watching this race live on TV and hearing the engines screaming on the TV, we are hearing, through the walls of the hauler, those exact same engines screaming in real-time and real-space.

I think that I am the only one in the room who thinks that this is weird.

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At some point, as we are all watching the race on TV, Narain quietly announces that it’s time for him to change into his uniform. Immediately, the rest of us exit the room with machine-like efficiency. A bit later, Narain emerges in full uniform and I am reminded of a passage from an Updike short story, and I resolve to look it up later. Here it is:

With a terrible shuffling of hooves and heaving of glossy mass, the horse was led from the barn and suddenly Frank was up on it, transformed, majestic, his pink face crowned by his round black hat, he and the horse a single new creature.

I think of this passage again later when I see Narain in his car.

Something happens to this man when he puts on his race uniform. I can’t explain it any better than this: He is suddenly imbued with a sense of purpose that is damn near tangible.

I guess I won’t be discussing Indian food with him now.

Just before the race, the crews walk the cars from the infield onto the pit lane, and this walking of the cars is a spectacle. 36 race-cars with their bright logos are being pushed in a double-file procession into the arena. AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is playing through the P.A. system at outdoor-rock-concert decibels. And 30,000 fans are cheering wildly: The waiting is almost over.

Meanwhile—hundreds of feet away from their cars—the drivers are standing near the starting line, waiting to be introduced by the P.A. announcer, one by one, in reverse order of their starting positions.

During driver introductions, I inspect Narain’s car without touching it. I notice something, and corroborate my conclusions via a clandestine inspection of two other nearby cars and later a quick conversation with Ted, because I kind of cannot believe what I’m seeing.

These cars lack these three things: (1) A door. (2) A fuel gauge. (3) A speedometer.

During the race, I am in the pit with the management team and the crew. A cool thing happens: The only female member of the management team here today, a woman named Merrily—who has been generous throughout the day with knowledge about racing—offers me a set of head-phones so that I can hear the conversations among Narain, the spotter, and the crew chief.

The spotter is a person who is perched in the highest part of the grandstand, hundreds of feet away from the pit, with binoculars. The spotter has the best view of the whole track. Narain’s spotter is Stacy Compton, a veteran (and still active) NASCAR driver who also serves as Narain’s driving coach.

The crew chief (Chad Kendrick) and Ted and Miguel are stationed on a platform about 10 feet high at the front of the pit. Immediately below that platform is the pit crew along with 16 tires and several huge gas-canisters I will describe to you shortly.

I am in the back of the pit, standing against the fence that separates the pit area from the infield.

Here are some snippets of dialogue from separate conversations I hear through the headphones:

From the crew chief: “Pit this lap. We’ll be pulling four tires and two cans.” This means that at the upcoming pit-stop, all four tires will be changed and two cans of gasoline will be added.

From Narain: “It’s loose coming out of turns one and two.” “Loose” means that on a turn, the back tires lose a little traction, causing the back end to fishtail. “Tight” means the opposite—on a turn, the front tires lose traction, and basically the car doesn’t want to turn, and this causes the front end to slip toward the outside wall. There is an adjustment that can be made by the pit crew known as “adding or subtracting wedge”, which involves adding or subtracting pressure on a particular spring to either push the tire down harder or push the tire down a little softer to fix the problem of looseness or tightness respectively.

From the spotter: “Inside … inside … inside … clear.”

“Inside” means that a car behind Narain is trying to pass Narain on the inside. (Remember, this race is happening on an oval.) Then “clear” means that either (1) the attempt to pass Narain was unsuccessful, and Narain can cut back to the inside in front of the car that had tried to pass him; or (2) the attempt to pass Narain was successful, and Narain can possibly cut back to the inside behind the car that has just passed him.

This type of information must be communicated by the spotter, because the driver can actually see very little of what is going on around him. (As Narain put it to me earlier in the day, “Peripheral vision is nearly nil.”)  There are a rearview mirror and side-mirrors inside the car, but because these mirrors are small and because of the helmet and the safety gear and the general lack of freedom to move within the car-seat, the driver can see much less of what is going on around him than you or I can see when we drive.

I am convinced that, rather than toiling away on a treadmill every morning, I could get my heart into better shape simply by standing in a pit at a NASCAR race for 30 minutes a day of pit-stops. Because my heart-rate accelerates to an uncomfortable rate during the organized chaos that is a pit-stop.

Of the several pit-stops that I witness, here’s an average: The car squeals into the pit, and the crew (of seven men) changes all four tires and empties two huge canisters of Sunoco gasoline into the car’s gas tank, and then the car basically space-warps back into the race. And this all happens in about 20 seconds.

Each Sunoco gas-can is six feet long and bright red, holds 12 gallons of gas, and weighs about 75 pounds when full; and the two cans are emptied one by one into the car’s gas tank in about 10 seconds each. These person-sized red Sunoco cans are all over the place at a NASCAR race. I imagine that from a hundred feet above, they look like crushed red pepper on a pizza.

So the pit-stop is essentially a tightly-choreographed 20-second ballet of crew members pirouetting in and out of one another’s ways while brandishing huge tires (about twice as wide as regular car-tires) and power-drills and bright red 75-pound cans of gasoline; and the pressure to do everything exactly correctly and in as little time as possible is amazing. As I’m watching this, I’m empathetically nervous for the crew members and I’m thinking, pleasedon’tscrewthisup!pleasedon’tscrewthisup!pleasedon’tscrewthisup!….

Oh, and on top of all that, one of the crew members could easily get hit and die, during the car’s sudden acceleration out of the pit and back onto the track.

Anaerobic zone, here I come.

Having opened the race in the 9th position, Narain has a rough go in the early parts of the race and falls to 24th, then comes back strong in the second half to finish in 14th place. Though the goal was a top 10 finish, the team is pretty happy with the comeback. For 14th place, Narain gets 121 points in the NASCAR Trucks standings, and wins $13,725 in purse money. The winner, Kyle Busch, gets 195 points and $52,300.

One thing is striking about this team of 10 or so people: Though the team is clearly centered on Narain and his success, still on a personal level Narain appears to function as simply a member of this team—not as He Who Must Be Served By All Of The Others.

And now it occurs to me that this dynamic is part of what I noticed when I first saw Narain. Initially, I was only able to note that he somehow looked normal and did not carry himself like a star. Now I realize that what I was, and am, seeing, is a lack of ego. This man—who is one of the five most famous athletes in the second most populous nation on the globe—has managed to accomplish world-class feats, somehow without developing a huge ego that would demand that everybody in the room notice him and serve him and acknowledge his star-status.

e76b45a991abf3989dfb4db1ff1c4a45-5What Narain Karthikeyan is trying to accomplish seems damn near impossible.

But what he has already accomplished also seems damn near impossible.

So maybe, just maybe, he will accomplish it.

I will be pleased if he does.

 

Follow Narain Karthikeyan on Twitter via @narainracing and @starbeastweb.

There is currently a contest going on among NASCAR drivers to be the “Most Popular Driver.”  We would love to see Narain win this contest! Just click on this link:

http://www.nascar.com/news/features/2010.truck.mpd/

Ranjit Souri writes from Chicago.

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