Kamui Kobayashi, regarded as one of the best sports car drivers in the world, will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August.
The popular Japanese driver Kobayashi will drive for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan that opened this season by fielding a Toyota for action sports star Travis Pastrana in the Daytona 500.
Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve F1 drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with 75 career Grand Prix starts, with his best result being a single podium scored at his home race, the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.
Kobayashi drove for Sauber, Caterham and Toyota. He made 75 starts and has one podium
Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Supra Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
The latest announcement made Wednesday at the 24 Hours of Le Mans makes Kobayashi only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first Japanese driver to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.
“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press ahead of Le Mans this weekend. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.
“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”
Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 Toyota on the Indy roadcouse on 13 August
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Division (TRD) U.S.A said: “It´s truly an honor to have Kamui want to participate in our NASCAR Cup Series program, and we´re thrilled that we could work with our partners at 23XI Racing to give him a competitive Camry TRD for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course event.”
“Kamui shares the passion for motorsports that all of us at Toyota and TRD, U.S.A. live every day, so it will be exciting to show him our NASCAR program with him behind the wheel of one of our TRD Camrys.”
Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race and his two-car Toyota Gazoo team has won the overall race title the last five years.
Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.
Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal. Toyota Gazoo has two cars entered in the race that begins Saturday as Kobayashi oversees the team’s attempt to win a sixth consecutive title.
Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.
Many consider NASCAR’s Next-Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis and expects some time on the simulator. Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.
“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”