By Jerry Jordan, Editor and Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
LE MANS, France – It was big news for Toyota and 23XI Racing as the announcement was made during the runup for the 24 Hours of Le Mans that Toyota Gazoo Racing driver, Kamui Kobayashi, will hop into the No. 67 NASCAR Cup Series car at the Indianapolis Road Course in August.
The famed Formula 1 Japanese driver, who now races for Toyota Gazoo Racing in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) series was on-hand at the press conference, along with a host of Toyota dignitaries, including David Wilson, the President of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) U.S.A. Also, present at the event were representatives from NASCAR, including NASCAR CEO Jim France, many of whom were at Le Mans watching the Garage 56 NASCAR/Hendrick Motorsports entry. The group fielded questions from the media where Kobayashi discussed his decision to dive into NASCAR with the team owned by NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and NBA star Michael Jordan.
“I think NASCAR is kind of like baseball,” Kobayashi said. “It’s something different in the culture of motorsports compared to Japan and Europe and it’s NASCAR and as a driver, it’s an American dream. I was lucky as I was able to race in IMSA the last couple of years. It’s a different way of racing, but I think as racing technology, it’s really at a high level. I really appreciate this opportunity from TRD, U.S.A. and of course Toyota Motor North America and Toyota Gazoo Racing. For us, especially the Japanese people, Toyota has been in NASCAR for a while and I don’t think any other Japanese driver has been in a Toyota racing in the Cup Series. I’m very proud of this opportunity.”
Originally, there was talk that Kobayashi might run the Chicago Street Course but he said logistically it was an impossibility. His schedule is pretty packed and he will take a few days in the simulator to get acclimated behind the wheel of a full-body stock car. That was something he equated to driving a Lexus RC F GT3 in the IMSA Series.
“I think the closest thing would be the Lexus RC F GT3 race car, but other than that, I’ve never driven a stock car,” he said. “Scheduling is just impossible, and I have very limited timing to find time to race in NASCAR. I didn’t plan on racing at an oval so when you look at the road course, those are the only chances that I was going to have and there was Chicago, but Chicago is too close, so we decided to look at Indianapolis to be safe.
“I think honestly the preparation will be somewhat limited. I will have a couple days of simulator sessions. And of course, I get to drive the real car on a test track. At the end of the day, I think getting to experience the car on the real track will be challenging for myself, but I need to use a lot of my own experience to adapt. At this time, we are lucky because we have a very high-quality simulator so that helps a lot. For sure I think TRD, U.S.A. is going to help with all their experience. I think we will also work with the other drivers to share information as that will help. With on-track opportunities, we are limited, but with experience and knowledge, we have some of the best for this form of racing.”
Kobayashi began his racing career in karting while growing up in Japan and after winning several titles, he won a scholarship to join Toyota’s Young Drivers Program. From there, he made the transition into single-seat race cars. He went from racing in Japan to racing in Europe and signed a deal in 2008 with Toyota, where he would debut in the Brazilian Grand Prix. He would stay in F1 until 2014 when he would move back to Japan to race in the Supra Formula Series. He filled in for Lexus Racing driver Jack Hawksworth at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2022. Hawksworth had been sidelined from racing following a motorcycling incident. Kobayashi is now a driver and team principal with the Toyota Gazoo Racing Team in the WEC.
Along with co-drivers Mike Conway, from the United Kingdom and Jose Maria Lopez from Argentina, Kobayashi drove the No. 7 Toyota GR010 Hybrid to Victory Lane in the 2021 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“It’s truly an honor to have Kamui want to participate in our NASCAR Cup Series program, and we’re thrilled that we could work with our partners at 23XI Racing to give him a competitive Camry TRD for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course event,” Wilson said. “Kamui shares the passion for motorsports that all of us at Toyota and TRD, U.S.A. live every day so it will be exciting to show him our NASCAR program with him behind the wheel of one of our TRD Camrys.”
And Kobayashi is already well aware of what his new 23XI teammates are capable of behind the wheel. He said he watched Tyler Reddick take on the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX and park his Toyota Camry in Victory Lane earlier this year. He said he knows there is a much knowledge that he can gain from interacting with Reddick and Bubba Wallace and other team leaders.
Kobayashi’s successes are not lost on 23XI, either. His stint as a driver for the team is being taken very seriously and Steve Lauletta, 23XI Racing’s president, said the No. 67 team will have him a great car for the race.
“We are thrilled to support Kamui in his first NASCAR Cup Series start as we field another competitive Toyota for the race in Indianapolis,” said Lauletta. “This race will also serve as a great opportunity for our team to compete with and learn from a highly accomplished driver. Earlier in the season the No. 67 team did a great job preparing and executing at the Daytona 500 and we look forward to the same with Kamui. We are also excited to introduce Kamui’s many international fans to 23XI and our sport.”
But don’t think that Kobayashi’s foray into NASCAR is a one-and-done scenario. He was clear that he would like to try out oval racing, as well.
“For the oval courses, I don’t think it’s too far of an option for myself, but I thought starting on a road course would be best because racing an oval in a stock car is so different from my experience so that would be a huge risk,” Kobayashi said. “But that might be another step in the future. Being that I have never driven a Cup car, I think this is a good step for us. The road course is comfortable to try and if this goes well in this car, that could be another option in the future.”