INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Shane van Gisbergen has spent six weeks getting acclimated to his new celebrity racing status.
He has been revising his schedule, changing travel plans, linking up with new and old acquaintances and, yes, still clarifying the pronunciation of his last name. These are busy days for the three-time Supercars champion, busier than anticipated when he started pondering a move to NASCAR.
Everything changed for one of New Zealand’s most popular drivers when he posted an impressive victory on the streets of Chicago.
“A few other guys in the field dropped me a message after the race, which is cool, and just the reach that race had,” the 34-year-old van Gisbergen said. “People I hadn’t heard from for years, racing royalty and stuff. The amount of messages (I had) — winning a Supercars championship — I’ve never had such a response from so many people.”
He has become so popular that Trackhouse Racing opted to bring back van Gisbergen for Sunday’s Brickyard 200 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Cup Series race is on the road course, instead of the track’s historic 2.5-mile oval, and van Gisbergen is looking to become the first driver to win his first two NASCAR Cup Series races. He qualified eighth for his second race, posting a fast lap of 1 minute, 28.335 seconds.
It’s already been a stressful week.
Since arriving at team headquarters Monday, van Gisbergen has joined IndyCar driver and longtime friend Scott McLaughlin to plot strategy for the speedway’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. He has worked on the simulator and crammed for his first oval experience Friday night in the NASCAR Truck Series.
Fans have followed his every move, with some New Zealanders even making their second trek to America since early July just to watch van Gisbergen. The Indianapolis Raceway Park bleachers were nearly three-quarters full Friday, with most roaring during van Gisbergen’s introduction.
While he finished 19th in Ross Chastain’s No. 41, van Gisbergen still raved about the experience.
“I had a ball, it’s awesome racing with these people, a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m living the dream. It was really cool.”
The bigger challenge might be keeping pace with constantly evolving plans.
Less than two weeks ago, van Gisbergen sounded content to run some Cup races next season while putting a premium on the traditional Xfinity Series apprenticeship. By Friday, rumors were swirling that he might run a full-time Cup schedule next year.
Van Gisbergen seems unfazed by all the outside noise.
He came to town hoping to race, learn and spend time with two countrymen — McLaughlin of Team Penske and six-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon from Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I’ve said a number of times what I think he did at Chicago was awesome, awesome for New Zealand motorsport,” McLaughlin said. “For him to be here, I’m very excited. Four years ago, we were banging doors in Supercars. It’s crazy. Now we’ve both had a win in America, which is awesome.”
Van Gisbergen isn’t just a newcomer to the Cup circuit. He may be a trendsetter, too.
The list of road racing specialists entered in this weekend’s race is expansive. There’s Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion, and Kamui Kobayashi, the 2021 Le Mans winner. Another Supercars star, Brodie Kostecki, is making his Cup debut in Indy.
“That’s one of the coolest things about this weekend, is the nationalities that are racing in the Cup Series,” former driver and current television analyst Jeff Burton said. “It’s really fun. It’s fun to see, exciting to see, people coming from all over the world to run in the Cup Series.”
Van Gisbergen could create another memorable moment for a city that has a rich tradition of embracing international drivers.
The names range from British drivers such as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart to Brazilians Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, even Indianapolis 500 winners Takuma Sato of Japan, Dario Franchitti of Scotland, Will Power of Australia and Dixon.
A second straight win almost certainly would put Van Gisbergen among those names. But he also knows Indy poses a different kind of challenge.
Unlike Chicago’s inaugural event, the other Cup drivers have a wealth of information on this road course. Unlike Chicago, van Gisbergen must contend with double-file restarts. And unlike Chicago, van Gisbergen is no longer an unknown brand; he’ll be facing a field of drivers more aware of his ability than before.
“We’ve got a good car and a car that’s capable of winning so if we get everything right, anything can happen. But it’s going to be tough,” van Gisbergen said. “Obviously, Chicago was a fairytale and there’s still a lot of work to be done yet. Hopefully, we’ll have a fun weekend again.”