This weekend, Formula One veteran and NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Romain Grosjean is doing something he wasn’t sure he ever envisioned, something that prevented him from running the full 2021 season: racing on an oval.
Former Formula One driver Grosjean will make his oval debut at the 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (8 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN) Saturday night.
The Frenchman tested at the racetrack over the summer, completing 166 laps and clocking a best lap time of 25.3625 seconds, just half a second off the best lap of the day by Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport.
Grosjean’s performance and how well he acclimates to a style of racing he’s never done before will be one of the biggest storylines this weekend. But oval debuts by celebrated international racers are not something new.
Plenty of drivers have come from international series with only road and street circuits to the INDYCAR SERIES. Inevitably, those drivers had to race an open-wheel car on an oval, which is commonplace in North America’s premier open-wheel series but rare outside America.
Grosjean is keeping his expectations modest for the race Saturday night, and this list isn’t intended to compare him to former drivers and how they all performed. Some of the best drivers in the world struggled in their first oval races before flourishing at the discipline, while others got the hang of it quickly. This list simply provides context.
Grosjean wants to learn and prepare himself for a potential full-time ride in 2022, but no matter how he finishes on Saturday, he will add his name to the long list of big-name drivers who have come to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and raced an oval for the first time.
Here’s a list of some of those stars and how they fared in their oval debut:
“Mansell Mania” was in full force when the defending Formula One champion Nigel Mansell came to Indianapolis in 1993. Mansell quit F1 after his title-winning season in 1992 due to a dispute with the Williams team, and he joined Newman/Haas Racing in the INDYCAR SERIES.
The world wanted to know how this star would fare in the Indianapolis 500, which served as his oval debut, too.
However, making his oval debut at Indianapolis wasn’t the plan. Mansell was supposed to make his first oval start in April at Phoenix Raceway. He practiced his No. 5 Newman Haas Racing machine and even surpassed the track record in practice.
However, a practice crash on the backstretch of the 1-mile oval forced him to withdraw from the race with a seriously injured back. He bravely returned at the next race, two weeks later at Long Beach, scoring the pole and finishing third.
Therefore, his oval debut came at Indianapolis, where he finished third and earned Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors. Mansell led Laps 175-184 and looked poised for a stunning win, but previous “500” winners Emerson Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk used their thousands of miles of oval experience to jump Mansell on a Lap 185 restart, with Fittipaldi pulling away for his second win.
But it didn’t take Mansell long to adjust to ovals. He won the race following Indianapolis, at Milwaukee. Then, he won at Michigan, Loudon and Nazareth. In all, four of his five wins in his championship-winning 1993 season came on ovals.
Two-time Formula One World Champion Jim Clark’s claim to fame in the INDYCAR SERIES is winning the 1965 Indianapolis 500. But his oval debut came at Indianapolis in 1963, where he started fifth and finished second, leading 28 laps for Team Lotus.
In August 1963, two months after Indianapolis, Clark returned to the United States to compete in an INDYCAR SERIES race at the 1-mile Milwaukee oval. He dominated, leading all 200 laps to score his first career INDYCAR SERIES win.
In fact, both of Clark’s INDYCAR SERIES wins came on ovals. He also was dominant in victory in 1965 at Indianapolis, leading 190 of 200 laps.
Two-time Formula One World Champion Graham Hill came to Indianapolis in 1966 and proved why he was one of the greatest race car drivers of all time. In his oval debut at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hill won the Indianapolis 500.
Hill had a bit of luck en route to winning the race, leading just 10 laps as fellow F1 star Jackie Stewart lost oil pressure on Lap 190 of 200, handing the lead over to Hill late in the race. Stewart’s misfortune was reflected in his selection as the race’s Rookie of the Year even though fellow rookie Hill won.
Hill returned to Indianapolis two more times, in 1967 and ’68, but he didn’t have the same combination of luck and success as he did in 1966. Still, Hill gave drivers all over the world something to shoot for: winning the triple crown of motorsports, which is the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix.
To this day, Hill is the only driver who has won all three.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Although Juan Pablo Montoya started in the INDYCAR SERIES, went to Formula One and eventually back to the INDYCAR SERIES, it’s still worthwhile to look at his oval debut.
Montoya’s first INDYCAR start was an oval, coming in 1999 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He started eighth and finished 10th for Chip Ganassi Racing, which arranged before the season for a driver swap with Williams in which Alex Zanardi moved from Ganassi’s team to Williams in F1 and F3000 champion and Williams test driver Montoya came to America to race for Ganassi. Montoya’s second start was at Twin Ring Motegi in the following race, where he started 15th and finished 13th.
Eventually, Montoya got the knack of oval racing and won his third oval start, at Nazareth. He won from the pole, leading 210 of 225 laps. He scored another oval win in 1999 at Chicago Motor Speedway. In 2000, he won four races, all on ovals: Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Michigan and World Wide Technology Raceway.
Alex Zanardi came to the INDYCAR SERIES from Formula One in 1996. His oval debut was at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he started 14th and finished 24th. He completed just 83 of 133 laps after crashing out.
Zanardi struggled on ovals in his rookie season, with his best finish being 13th at Michigan and Milwaukee.
The 1997 season was much better to Zanardi on ovals, scoring a pole position and finishing seventh in the first race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He finally scored his first oval win 12 races into the season at Michigan, leading 104 of 250 laps en route to his first of two consecutive INDYCAR SERIES championships in 1997.
Emerson Fittipaldi came to the INDYCAR SERIES in 1984 after winning two Formula One World Championships in the 1970s, giving himself a “second career” of sorts in the INDYCAR SERIES.
1989 INDYCAR SERIES Fittipaldi made his oval racing debut in 1984 at Phoenix Raceway. He started 24th and finished 12th, seven laps down. His second oval race was the next one on the schedule: the Indianapolis 500. He started 23rd and finished 32nd, completing just 37 laps before an oil pressure issue prevented him from finishing the race.
His best oval run that season was Phoenix, as well as Michigan, where he also finished 12th.
The following year, Fittipaldi scored his first INDYCAR SERIES win, and of all places, it came on an oval at Michigan with Patrick Racing. He started 19th and led 29 laps. It was one of seven oval races he would win in his career, including the Indianapolis 500 in 1989 and 1993.
Eddie Cheever holds the distinction as the most experienced American driver in Formula One, making 132 starts from 1978-89.
He made his INDYCAR SERIES debut at a Miami street course race in 1986, but he didn’t compete in the series full time until 1990. His oval debut came in the first race of the season at Phoenix. He started 18th and finished seventh for Chip Ganassi Racing.
He competed in five ovals that season, with a best finish of fourth at Michigan.
His first oval win came in 1997 at Walt Disney World Speedway. He started fifth and led four laps en route to victory. In fact, all five of Cheever’s INDYCAR SERIES wins came on ovals: Disney (1997, 1999), Indianapolis (1998), Pikes Peak (2000) and Kansas (2001).
Many NTT INDYCAR SERIES fans forget that before he made his INDYCAR debut in 2010, Sato was a seasoned Formula One veteran. He competed in the series from 2002-08.
He transitioned to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2010. His oval debut came at Kansas, where he started 11th and finished 24th for KV Racing Technology. He was involved in a late-race accident on Lap 186 of 200.
His best oval performance of the season came in his homeland of Japan at Twin Ring Motegi, where he started 10th and finished 12th.
His early starts on ovals were not indicative of the strong oval racer he would become. Three of his six career wins have come on ovals: Indianapolis (2017, 2020) and World Wide Technology Raceway (2019).