Q&A: Rising sports car driver Christina Nielsen on 2014 season


One of the drivers to watch heading into the offseason in the world of sports car racing is Christina Nielsen, the Danish driver who competed in several championships this past season.

In her first full season in North America, Nielsen, 22, raced a full season with NGT Motorsport in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup USA, a partial season in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship with NGT and TRG-AMR, and made her Pirelli World Challenge debut with TRG-AMR at Sonoma.

Highlights included three podium finishes in GT3 and a sixth place finish in the Platinum Masters’ category and a debut podium in PWC, third in the GT-A class.

We caught up with Nielsen at Austin. Plans to run in GT Daytona with NGT for Road Atlanta were shelved when one of her scheduled teammates, Earl Bamber, was called up to a factory Porsche GT Le Mans seat and NGT withdrew the car. She slotted in at TRG-AMR with James Davison and David Block.

MotorSportsTalk: You’ve been transitioning between Porsches this season, with the Cup car and the 911 GT America. How have you learned and adjusted?

Christina Nielsen:  It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. See it as a great opportunity to practice and adjust quickly. As a pro driver that’s something you need to do quickly. I’m very hapy to do it. I’ve been fortunate to drive so many. It brings a bit of extra work, but I’m very happy to do it.

Nielsen at COTA. Photo: IMSA

MST: What have you learned from working with a team of NGT’s pedigree within GT3?

CN: It’s been great; the team has a lot of experience. I think the guys on my car have taken good care of it. My engineer has a single focus on my car, and we’ve been strong individually even though we’re a big team. Some bad luck this season. Some issues. But hopefully we’ll work through them.

MST: Racing in traffic from your TUDOR opportunities, what have you learned there about multi class racing?

CN: It’s crazy when you’re racing with several categories, and it’s definitely not easy at a new track. There’s a lot of things to adjust to, and to learn to practice who is coming at you. Is it a competitor? Do you let this guy pass? What’s important to focus on? It’s been an amazing experience.

MST: Having a combined FIA WEC/TUDOR weekend on your schedule allows you to meet and network rather well. How do you take advantage of that?

CN: What’s great for me this weekend is that I’m only doing IMSA GT3, so not on double duty. And I finish Friday evening. So I’m free to mingle around on Saturday and see what everyone else is doing. I’m happy with where I am, but this way you get a lay of the land.

There’s friends and other Danes you want to see… Tom Kristensen, for instance, I just said hello to him. He’s a great guy. I mean it’s an honor to see him race. His performances are amazing.

MST: 2015 outlook is a jump to TUDOR? Pirelli World Challenge? Possible return back to Europe?

CN: We have to consider Pirelli World Challenge and (TUDOR) GTD as well. But we have to face the fact we probably don’t have the budget for GTD. It’s not that easy. We are open to all options. I like racing in America, I like the tracks, and I like the culture.

MST: About the culture, how have you embedded yourself over here this season?

CN: Especially with a focus on next year, it would be nice to be over here again. I have developed some solid performances that have caught some interest. You make a solid base and try to use that for next year. I definitely found my two favorite tracks, Road Atlanta my number one and Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsoprt Park) is super cool.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”