An ex-F1 racer’s ‘three-hour bar fight’ in NASCAR

Having contested 24 Formula 1 grand prix for McLaren and Stewart during the 1990s, Jan Magnussen is no stranger to the motorsport limelight. But the Dane admits that he tried to go under the radar for a one-off NASCAR Cup Series appearance at Sonoma in 2010, which he describes as a “fantastic experience”.

Despite an impressive junior single-seater career which included prestigious wins at the 1992 Formula Ford Festival and a record-breaking British Formula 3 title success in 1994, his time in grand prix racing was short-lived and yielded but a single point on his final outing at the 1998 Canadian Grand Prix.

But a move into sportcars reignited his career, first proving his class alongside David Brabham at Panoz before a switch to Corvette Racing allowed him to flourish with four Le Mans 24 Hours class wins between 2004 and 2009.

Archive: How F1-exile Magnussen made the switch to sportscars 

It also paved the way for further opportunities in America and ultimately his memorable NASCAR cameo, where he finished 12th.

Alongside his commitments in the American Le Mans Series, Magnussen had been working with NASCAR’s top General Motors outfit Hendrick Motorsports to develop road course set-ups and “as a bonus” was given the chance to compete in a race aboard a fifth Chevrolet fielded by sister squad Phoenix Racing.

“The cars are heavy with big, soft tyres, and a stiff rear axle,” recalls Magnussen of the car’s characteristics. “It just takes a different driving style, you’ve got to be super patient with everything you do.

“But there’s so much power, 850-900 horsepower or something. Incredible! [It had] four gears, but it felt like with that amount of power you just pick a gear you like.”

Magnussen enjoyed the enormous power of the under-gripped stock cars

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Despite having to adapt to the car, Magnussen had high expectations of himself heading to the 16th round of that year’s championship at the 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway. It was a track he knew well from ALMS exploits – having memorably won there with the Panoz in 2002, he and Brabham beating the vastly superior Audi R8 of Tom Kristensen and Johnny Herbert by less than half a second.

“The testing had gone really well and I had really high hopes, I thought I can do well here,” he says. “But the way you get prepared for a race weekend is quite different from anything else I’ve experienced before. The amount of running is very limited.”

The now 48-year-old could only qualify 32nd on the 43-car grid. But with 110 laps of racing to come, he knew there would be opportunity aplenty to rise up the order by simply staying out of trouble as those around him became embroiled in NASCAR’s inevitable push-and-shove.

“I made a plan immediately from stories that I’d heard, I need to stay below the radar for as long as possible,” he says. “The other guys that were there just for the road course race were being super-aggressive to begin with and they did get ahead of me – but they soon got wiped out by the locals!

“I knew it was only going to be the road courses, so I did more testing after that – but obviously my calendar at that time was pretty booked so unfortunately no more came out of it” Jan Magnussen

“There’s so much going on the whole time, it was like a bar room fight for three hours.”

Another driver making his NASCAR debut that weekend was two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom, who Magnussen admitted he was measuring himself against – and ultimately beat, after the Swede was spun out by Brad Keselowski.

Magnussen’s race also wasn’t without incident, as he made contact with Carl Edwards four laps from home which sent the incensed 2008 series runner-up into a spin.

“He had me in a stranglehold after the race,” laughs Magnussen. “I got pushed into him, but it was still me that hit him. I got pushed into him right after his spotter had told my spotter that they were racing for points. But my spotter told his spotter that we weren’t…”

Ekstrom got ahead of Magnussen but the Dane finished ahead after the DTM champion ruffled a few feathers

Ekstrom got ahead of Magnussen but the Dane finished ahead after the DTM champion ruffled a few feathers

Photo by: Motorsport Images

While Magnussen could be pleased with his day’s work, his efforts in developing road course set-ups with Hendrick had also proven its worth as Jimmie Johnson took victory, while Jeff Gordon finished fifth. With all five Hendrick-affiliated cars inside the top 15 finishers, Magnussen says his one-off outing was mutually beneficial to all.

“My team-mates were Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, like 10-11 championships right there [at the time],” he says.

“They were all great, but Dale Earnhardt Jr was fantastic to work with. So considerate and really appreciated whatever help I could bring. Hendrick Motorsports was great, an unbelievable team.”

Magnussen continued working with the team through the rest of the season with the intention to do more road courses, but his clashing sportscar schedule prevented any further NASCAR outings.

“I hoped to do more,” he says. “I knew it was only going to be the road courses, so I did more testing after that – but obviously my calendar at that time was pretty booked so unfortunately no more came out of it.

“But NASCAR is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.”

Strong finish for Hendrick team vindicated Magnussen's set-up work, but he didn't get another race opportunity

Strong finish for Hendrick team vindicated Magnussen’s set-up work, but he didn’t get another race opportunity

Photo by: Motorsport Images