Two revelations came out of the V8 Supercar and NASCAR Sprint Cup car swap Tuesday at Circuit of The Americas in Austin: First, 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch would make one hell of a V8 Supercar driver.
Second, 2010 V8 Supercars champion James Courtney would rank among the finest road course "ringers" when NASCAR visits Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
The two champs got together at the lavish 3.4-mile Texas circuit as part of a media day to promote the upcoming V8 Austin 400 race at the USGP venue to be held May 17-19, but the event got off to a business-like start for Busch and his Furniture Row Sprint Cup team.
As the first Sprint cup team to test at the $400 million facility, Busch spent the morning lapping in his Gen6 Chevy SS looking to gather chassis setup data to be used at Sonoma and the Glen, and despite the long straights at COTA, found the track's corners to have a lot more in common with the Northern California circuit.
“On the back straight at Watkins Glen we're hitting 190mph,” said Busch, “and you'll put up a big number here too, but the hairpins are what jump out the most. It makes me think of Sonoma more than anything. I expected it to be more like Watkins Glen.”
After learning the circuit in his rental car, Busch turned a handful of exploratory laps at COTA under overcast skies in the No. 78 SS and got down to an unofficial 2:20.2 before pulling into the garage.
“We're losing a lot of time in the hairpins; we thought we brought a lot of tools in our toolbox, but first gear is way too tall and it just won't pull out of the tight corners so we'll see what we have that's shorter and go back out,” Busch explained after climbing from the car.
His next outing would extract more speed from the car in the slow corners, carving five seconds from the stopwatch to a 2:15.0 (the recent Grand-Am Rolex Series GT pole position at COTA was a 2:08.8), but the limitations on first-gear ratios and the overall limitations of the four-speed gearbox around the rolling circuit meant Busch would go no faster.
With two hours of testing by Busch completed, he and Courtney got down to business – but not before figuring out how to get into each other's car.
For Courtney, going from his Holden Commodore V8 with its seat and pedal on the right – complete with a functional door that opens and closes – and sequential shifter he uses with his left hand to climbing through the left window opening in Busch's Gen6 car and shifting an H-pattern gearbox with his right hand took a few moments to digest.
Busch had the same learning process to go through, but in reverse. Rather than sliding in through the window, he gently opened the door, climbed over the roll cage and dropped into the seat. In place of his usual H-pattern, he had a 6-speed shift-without-lift gearbox in the V8.
The weight and power differences between the two cars also served as an eye-opener for both drivers. At 3500 lbs, the Cup car weighs more and struggles to keep up with the 3100-lb Holden in the corners, but with the better part of 950hp, the 630hp generated by the Commodore was no match on the straights.
Busch and Courtney pulled away from the pits up the steep incline to Turn 1, and from there, the two champions took turns leading and following around COTA as they built up speed and confidence in the foreign machinery.
With a background that includes everything from Formula 1 test driving to karting, Courtney adapted quickly to the more-power-than-grip Sprint Cup car, and the Australian seemed instantly at home as he pushed the big car hard without abusing the tires, locking the brakes or getting into lurid slides.
The same was true for Busch who fast and tidy in the V8 Supercar, menacing Courtney in the corners as the road racing machine worked its magic, then fought to keep up as the Chevy stretched its legs between the turns.
Both men worked up a good sweat during their demo run, and had nothing but praise for each other, the cars and the demands of the two different forms of racing.
“One of the most exciting things I've ever done in a car is to learn a track, learn a car, and also race with somebody in a showmanship way to promote something from a different country,” said Busch after removing his helmet inside the V8 Supercar. “There's not a language barrier, it's not a driving barrier, but when you respect the other guy and you learn them that fast, I feel like the two of us were on the same page, but we weren't reading our normal book.
“This was like reading braille for me; we'll have to see what he thought for his car. But it's amazing how two worlds come together, both cars are very comparable. It's amazing how the Cup car, the NASCAR car, will accelerate on the straightaways and this thing will swallow back up in the corner.”
Courtney, who admitted he spent the previous night practicing lines from the movie Days of Thunder, didn't get the chance to ask for a special set of matched tire, or hit the pace car, but did let out a big YeeHaw'as he climbed from the No. 78.
“I suppose coming here, I thought the NASCAR was going to be a big, clumsy car,” said Courtney who drives for the factory Holden Racing Team V8 squad. “When I got in it, I was blown away a little bit – a lot of the safety stuff is super impressive. That's something we can learn from.
“It's definitely one of the most powerful cars I've ever driven; I had the same horsepower when I was in Formula 1. It's one of the coolest things I've done. Sliding in the car Dukes of Hazard style was gnarly. I'd love to get the chance to do it again.”
With the Furniture Row team coming off a race on Sunday at Kansas and another one this weekend at Richmond, Busch and Co. had to leave COTA shortly after lunch, but the experience clearly made an impact on he and Courtney.
Asked if he saw any comparisons between Sprint Cup racing and what fans will see when the V8s race in Texas at the Austin 400 next month, Busch, who says he regularly watches the V8 Supercars on TV, says there's a lot of similarities to be found.
“The best analogy that I can describe is we race on short tracks like Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol, you can even toss in Phoenix and Loudon,” he explained. “Flat tracks. And we're side by side, door to door. You have those restarts that the adrenaline rush is there. These guys do it on the road course and they do it lap after lap after lap. And so you see a lot of torn up cars in the NASCAR world at Sonoma. You're going to see that here at the Circuit of The Americas with the V8 Supercars.
“So with that said, you have the closest quarters racing action that the American fans want to taste when they see something. But they're also coming here as sports cars enthusiasts to see this track, to see the facility and to see where the greatest drivers in the world who just raced with F1, MotoGP and now what we're going to have with the Australian V8 Supercars. It's an amazing track that brings a lot of worlds to one place.”
Having driven COTA in the Cup car and a V8 Supercar, Courtney expects the V8 series to put on its usual display of brilliant driving mixed with plenty of carnage.
“The last race, we had 28 cars [within] about eight-tenths of a second,” he said. “On the road courses that's pretty tight. Seven different winners in three rounds – anyone can win. Like Kurt said, we're door-to-door running into each other. Down here with all the hairpins, it's just asking for a guy in the inside with the wheel locked and do the door in on another guy.
"I think it's going to be great. We have four races over the two days, so there's plenty of on track action, plenty of chances to win and it's just really hard work for the mechanics to keep the cars running the whole weekend. So it's going to be great. I'm pumped and can't wait to get [back] here.”