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Ander Vilarino had arrived early for his champions’ photo shoot in the vacant NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway last December, when he learned Carl Edwards was filming a Subway spot on the front stretch. The newly-crowned Euro-Racecar Series champion took the opportunity to walk over and introduce himself. He returned from meeting one of NASCAR’s biggest stars with a huge smile and another story to tell back home in an offseason filled with them.
From sharing the stage at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with all of NASCAR’s touring series champions to competing in the inaugural UNOH Battle At The Beach at Daytona International Speedway, the 32-year-old from San Sebastian, Spain, thoroughly enjoyed the rewards of being the first Euro-Racecar Series champion in history under the NASCAR banner.
For Vilarino, these experiences aren’t just memories, they’re motivation.
“This was the most important championship I have won in my life,” said Vilarino. “I’m very driven to try to win the championship again. Last year, I was extremely focused about winning it as it was the first season under the NASCAR banner in Europe. I wanted to be the first.
“Now it is different. I want to come back to Charlotte and in Daytona. This is in my mindset. All the TFT-Banco Santander team did an incredible job during the winter and I have to give them very good results to pay them back.”
Test No. 1 comes this weekend in southwestern France as the second season of NASCAR’s European series opens at with the Nogaro 200 at Circuit Paul Armagnac.
The 14-turn, 2.260-mile road course is familiar grounds for Vilarino. Last year, he kicked off his championship run by setting fast time in practice, winning the pole position, and then sweeping the Sprint and Endurances races on the weekend. It gave him the points lead he would never relinquish all season.
“This track is a very technical one,” said Vilarino, who began stock-car racing in 2011 and won six of the 12 events last year. “It’s very important to have a car well balanced in braking. This is the most important thing. If it doesn’t move too much, you can brake late and enter the corner faster. Then you have a chance to overtake, particularly in the main straight, alongside the Aerodrome.
“It’s not a track with lots of momentum, but the first corner of the race is always very hot, because you have different lines, as you enter on the left, followed by two right corners. We will see action there as there are always contact.”
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Vilarino is already off to a fast start. He was the quickest in practice Friday – nearly a second faster than teammate Anthony Gandon.
Qualifying for the Nogaro 200 will be Saturday, with the first race Sunday afternoon and the second race Monday afternoon.
“The weather conditions expected this weekend should change a lot, with rain, no rain and rain again,” said Vilarino. “I think the key of this weekend will be to anticipate those conditions and do the correct choice of set-up and tires at every moment.
“You can start the race on a very wet track, but if it starts drying, the guy with wet tires who will chose the dry set-up can be the winner, and not the one with wet tyres and set-up. It’s gonna be very interesting and a bit of lottery if the weather is like this. But this is the same for everybody and the season is long.”
Friday’s practice ran under dry conditions.
The race weekends will feature a slightly different format than the one Vilarino won the championship under last year.
The Euro-Racecar Series is split into two classes – Elite Division and Open Division. The former, which Vilarino won, features the top drivers in the series, while the latter consists more of semi-professional drivers. In 2012, both divisions had shorter "Sprint" races, and then competed paired together in a pro-am format in longer "Endurance" races. The Elite Division drivers received points from the Endurance race based on where they were running when they got out of the car and handed it over to their Open driver.
This year, the Endurance races are gone. The Elite Division drivers will compete in two races of identical length on a race weekend. The seven venues will provide a total of 14 points races for the drivers to compete in, culminating with the championship weekend Oct. 12-13 at LeMans’ famed Circuit Bugatti. The French course also held the 2012 championship round.
The series will also return to England’s Brands Hatch as the headliner for American Speedfest in June, as well as Tours Speedway in France in July. The Tours race will be held once again on a temporary oval just outside Paris. Last year, American Ben Kennedy, the great grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., made history by becoming the first winner of a NASCAR points-race winner on a European oval.
The series has added France’s Circuit de Dijon-Prenois in May and Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in September to the schedule, as well as a non-points stop at Spain’s MotorLand Aragón on Sept. 1.
“I’m very excited with the new season,” said Jerome Galpin, the founder and promoter of the Euro-Racecar Series. “In my opinion, the level in each championship is higher than ever. Everybody will be very motivated to take the championship from Ander, but I think with what he experienced in Charlotte as well as in Daytona he will be also very motivated to make it happen again.
“In both divisions, we’ve got a lot of talented drivers coming from France, Europe and all over the world.”
More than 50 drivers from 11 different countries have already filed entries for the season.
The list of challengers to Vilarino’s title is long, led by Javier Villa, Romain Iannetta, Frédéric Gabillon, Willy Boucenna and Yann Zimmer.
The 25-year-old Villa, from Colunga, Spain, finished third in points last year and picked up a win at England’s Brands Hatch. This year, he joined Scorpus Racing, which won the 2012 Open Division title with Simon Escallier.
“The biggest thing for me this year is staying with the same team from the first to the last race,” said Villa. “When you start working with the same people, you always can develop the car, the team, myself personally, and you can improve at each race.
“We planned everything for the weekend and this is very important. I’m really confident we can do it to catch Ander Vilarino of the top of the podium.”
Boucenna finished fifth overall in points and second to Villa in the Trophée Junior, which is given to the top driver 25-years-old and younger. While Boucenna won the 2009 Euro-Racecar Series title, it was prior to the series’ sanctioning with NASCAR.
Vilarino got to experience last year all the perks that go along with being a NASCAR champion, and rest assured, he isn’t the only driver using that to drive their championship aspirations.
Ander Vilarino won six times in 2012 en route to the first Euro-Racecar Series championship under the NASCAR banner. Euro-Racecar Series