The inclusion of more road courses to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule and the introduction of the NextGen car has seemingly encouraged teams to cast a wider net for potential drivers to put behind the wheel on a race weekend. Despite former F1 drivers making their Cup debuts this year, I was more surprised and excited to see another name. Spire Motorsports has recruited Mike Rockenfeller to drive the team’s No. 77 NationsGuard Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at this weekend’s Go Bowling at the Glen. He’ll also drive for the Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October. Rockenfeller is a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and 2013 DTM Champion. I had the chance to ask him about this upcoming two-race stint with the team.
My first question to the decorated German racing driver was why this was the right opportunity to race in the NASCAR Cup Series. Rockenfeller replied that Spire presented him the offer and that he would have accepted a chance to race in NASCAR at any stage of his career. He said, “After I split with Audi at the end of 2021, I haven’t run a full season for the first time since I started racing professionally. I think this has come at the right time for me, as I’ve been looking for a clean break from the past and I’ve always enjoyed racing in the United States since I first did the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2004.”
Rockenfeller showed nothing but enthusiasm, praise and respect for NASCAR. The 38-year-old veteran said, “My expectation is that NASCAR will be super difficult to get right because it’s an incredibly competitive series with some of the best teams and drivers in the world. I’m under no illusion that it will be one of the biggest challenges in my racing career.” He just hopes to finish in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen, a track where he finished 6th in this year’s Six Hours at the Glen alongside his teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kamui Kobayashi.
Rockenfeller has only driven the NextGen Cup car in the simulator so far, but he shared his thoughts on the experience. He compared the newly-introduced car to a Porsche Carrera Cup car, the type of car he made his professional debut in during the 2002 Porsche Supercup season. He said, “It’s quite heavy, there’s not a lot of downforce, there’s very few driving aids, and not much to get distracted by in the way of buttons. It’s just about pure driving and going as fast as you can.”
Hopefully, cautious expectations and proven ability in other categories will serve Mike Rockenfeller well in his NASCAR debut at Watkins Glen. The Cup Series road course race in Western New York will also feature former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat and 2007 F1 champion Kimi Räikkönen.