It is 4,448 miles – or 7,157 kilometers, if you will – between Paris, France, and Daytona Beach, Florida.
The gap between European racers and their NASCAR dreams, though, has grown considerably smaller thanks to the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series.
In its second year under the NASCAR banner, the European-based stock-car series is not just making enormous strides with its on-track competition, but it’s become a gateway for drivers looking for the opportunity to pursue their dreams of racing in the highest levels of NASCAR.
For Max Papis, who has experienced open-wheel and every level of NASCAR in addition to winning GRAND-AM Road Racing Rolex Series’ Rolex 24 at Daytona, the European series provides a perfect setup.
“Six years ago, nothing like our NASCAR stock cars existed over in Europe,” Papis said. “What the series is bringing is a perfect training ground for an Italian kid who maybe doesn't have the money to travel all the way to America to get his experience. He can get his experience driving a NASCAR-type car on a track where he's more familiar and prepare himself to go run a Watkins Glen or a Mid-Ohio.
“They've got a really good thing going there, and they've got room to grow.”
And the driver experience works both ways.
Rick Crawford, a longtime fixture on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, became the next in line to join the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series across the pond for a race in the only NASCAR-sanctioned series in Europe. He competed in the July race at Tours Speedway, along with NASCAR K&N Pro Series West rookie Giles Thornton and Papis. Last year, NASCAR K&N Pro Series driver Ben Kennedy, the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., won the inaugural race at Tours.
What Crawford remembered most about a 108-lap event around a temporary quarter-mile oval bullring in Tours, France, was not his 14th-place finish – it was the entire experience there.
“One thing I really commend them on is all of the activity they had for the fans,” said Crawford, who has more than 350 Camping World Truck Series starts on his resume. “There are no garages – they've got big awnings and tents, and they work on their cars right beside the haulers. The fans get to see all of this go on; they get right up close to all of it.
“It was some great racing all weekend, and it was like a big festival. I was proud to be part of it and be an ambassador to NASCAR over there. I had a really nice time, and I would go love to go back again.”
While Crawford got his first taste of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series this summer, some European-born drivers were getting their first taste of NASCAR stateside.
From France’s Anthony Gandon making his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at Watkins Glen to 15-year-old Thomas Ferrando of France competing in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Sportsman division races at Bowman Gray Stadium, 2013 has been something of a coming-out party for the European stock car racing. Spain’s Ander Vilariño competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series portion of the UNOH Battle At The Beach in February, earning the spot by winning last year’s title in Europe.
“It's very important for us to create this bridge and give drivers this experience,” said Jerome Galpin, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series director. “It's very big for the series in Europe. The more we can come closer to the U.S., the better it will be for the series. We cannot do exactly the same things here, but the most important thing is that the series shares the same values.”
Papis pointed to his experience at Tours as a prime example of the series’ potential.
“They're using the right concept,” Papis said. “I really love the fact that when I showed up there, we had over 20 cars, the field was packed, a lot of people attending the event. Considering that everything else in Europe – with the exception of Formula 1 – is basically a non-success, to me it showed there is room for that series to grow.”
Though the success of NASCAR in Europe – and vice versa, with the success of European drivers in NASCAR – would bring with it more interest for the stock-car racing globally, such a bridge does hinge on the infusion of new talent.
Crawford believes he saw plenty of talent in the Euro Series.
“There is some young talent in Europe that can make it in the United States if they get the right break,” Crawford said. “I'd like to see some come over here and try a K&N Pro Series car, a Nationwide car, a Camping World Truck – because I really think they have some great young talent. A lot of them could go to the United States and really become a young star in this sport.”
When Crawford, a Mobile, Ala., native, got his start on the short tracks of the southeast, the concept of racing in Europe wasn’t even on the radar. Now he’s been embraced in France as an ambassador of the sport.
“I thought NASCAR had always been a good old boy sport, and we're going to start out in Daytona and North Carolina and just barnstorm around on asphalt and dirt tracks and have a good time,” Crawford said. “All of a sudden, we branch out to California, the northeast, the northwest. You've got these untapped markets that want NASCAR.
“Well, you've got an untapped market in Europe, too.”
Of course, Crawford made sure to impart a little grassroots, stock-car knowledge on the Euro Series teams before he left.
“I was doing some work with some of the teams, teaching them about this left-turn thing,” Crawford said. “I loved going there and can't wait to go again, and I see it from those guys looking at me, they want to come over here and work in NASCAR. It can work hand in hand.”
Which is exactly what the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series is hoping happens.