Markus Niemela on dirt racing: “This is a really, really hard sport to be good at”

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For former Formula Atlantic champion Markus Niemela, poor timing and a lack of a suitable opportunity in either Formula One or IndyCar ultimately stunted his open-wheel path.

He won the 2008 Atlantic title over Jonathan Bomarito and Jonathan Summerton, and the field also included drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, Dane Cameron and Simona de Silvestro among others.

The talented Finn, who raced in GP2 before moving to America, didn’t give up on his racing dreams though.

Shortly after his last Atlantic season in 2009 – the series’ last before coming back under different sanction several years later – Niemela made the switch to dirt racing and running sprint cars.

He was in the news last week after having a scary accident at Perris Auto Speedway, where a freak parts failure led to him somersaulting into the wall. Niemela emerged largely unscathed with only minor injuries.

But it’s worth noting the incident came after a year when Niemela had his best season yet in four on dirt.

He finished second in the USAC West Coast Sprint Car Championship behind Matt Mitchell (659 points to 631), which marks the best season result ever for any European driver in USAC.

That’s no small accomplishment, and that’s very impressive to note for the now 30-year-old native of Rauma, Finland, who has since moved to Santa Barbara, California.

MotorSportsTalk caught up with Niemela over the weekend to touch base on his career shift and to help further explain why dirt racing is so tantalizing, and how he’s developed over four years.

“Shifting to dirt was in all honesty much harder than I thought and I might have started off with a bit too big ego to start with,” Niemela admitted. “I was quite fast right away when the track was in a good shape and logical to drive, but honestly after four years of dirt tracks I still haven’t quite figured out in how many ways the track changes throughout the night. You just can’t have ‘a driving style’ in dirt racing because you need to adapt in so many different things. Almost every lap is different.”

And with that, Niemela admitted there is still plenty that he can keep learning as he continues to grow and develop.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, and the one thing I still need to learn the most, is to change my driving fast enough to keep up with the track, other cars, lapped traffic, etc.,” he said. “Also you need to be very aware of your surroundings all the time because there are cars all over the place, and you don’t have mirrors nor spotters.”

Markus Niemela’s No. 73. Photo credit: Robert Hargraves, via Facebook

Coming from formula cars, Niemela discussed the excitement of dirt racing and how seriously different it is. He spoke of the rawness of the arena, as well.

“Dirt racing is exciting because there is something going on the whole time and the race is not determined by the qualifying result,” he said. “Anything can happen and you always need to be awake. Dirt racing’s biggest plus and minus for me is the same thing: it’s just so raw form of sport. It’s good thing because there’s no bulls—, and also the danger element is kind of exciting for someone coming from formula cars that are very safe in general.

“But on the other hand, the biggest negative is the danger element too,” he added. “When I was racing formula cars I thought the stupidest question to ask a race car driver was about their fears – honestly since I started racing at the age of 6 in karting through all the formula car classes I had not once been afraid or thought I might get hurt or die doing it. Pretty soon after I started racing sprint cars the s— got real very fast and all of the sudden I didn’t feel immortal anymore…”

Unfortunately for sprint car racing, and dirt racing in general, safety has been a hot-button issue the last two years in the wake of Jason Leffler’s fatal accident last June, Tony Stewart’s crash and leg injury last August, and Stewart’s car striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. earlier this year.

Niemela discussed safety and what dirt racing can do moving forward to continue the improvement.

“The risk for big crashes is in the very nature of our sport and that cannot be eliminated without changing the very fundaments of it and we definitely should not do that,” Niemela said. “The key is to learn to keep the drivers alive despite a big crash.

“Comparing to European racing and formula cars, in dirt racing the safety is left more for drivers and teams to take care of than the sanctioning body to babysit. I can understand it though since it’s the drivers who get hurt if something goes wrong. The safety goes forward and we learn from each crash but unfortunately price for this learning curve can be very high (and I’m not talking about money here).

“That’s why I feel it would be nice to get information from what went wrong and what went right with each crash so that those (drivers and teams) willing to educate themselves could do so. That’s why I find also the posting of my own crash video to be a good thing. We should definitely not push the responsibility to any third party authority but expect the teams and drivers work with safety gear manufacturers and make things even better. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement.”

If there’s one thing Niemela would want to see cleared up about dirt racing, it’s that the talent and passion in the sport is immense.

“The biggest misconception is that this dirt racing is just bunch of rednecks having fun and drifting in random, easy circles,” he said. “This is actually a really, really hard sport to be good at. Some of these guys race 120 times per year and have done it all their life.

“Their faces might be dirty, they aren’t sponsored by Rolex and some of their necks might be a little red, but that’s not the point; point is that these guys are the best at what they do, no questions asked.

“I was quite close to landing a F1 deal after my Atlantic title in ’08 and I very much overlooked all the oval track racing and thought it was just plain dumb and easy. After getting constantly lapped by not-so-athletic, old sprint car veterans in local shows during my first year on dirt, my respect has grown a lot and still is growing.

“I think it’s been an big honor to lead the USAC championship most of the season here on the west coast and even if we ended up second in the points I still consider that as a personal achievement; which I never did when I finished second in my previous life in formula cars (or karting).”

We’re happy to see Niemela’s career come to the point where he’s now a bona fide title contender on dirt, and we thank him for his time and candid insights.

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.”