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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For the first time, Jerome Galpin was here to celebrate a NASCAR season and not simply look on as a casual observer of the festivities.
Galpin, the founder of the Euro-Racecar NASCAR Touring Series, was joined at the NASCAR Grand Champions Touring Awards in the Grand Ballroom at the Westin Hotel by inaugural series champion Ander Vilarino of Spain. Vilarino was one of seven NASCAR touring series champions honored at the morning awards ceremony.
And after four years of hard work to get a NASCAR-sanctioned series in Europe, Galpin was understandably proud.
“The fans were so amazed with our racing, and it's very important,” Galpin said. “If you make the same thing in front of people who have absolutely no picture of our racing, it's the same (response). We had fans on their feet and drivers on top of their roof. It was a great thing.
The stock-car Euro-Racecar series previously operated under the banner of FIA – the primary sanctioning body of European racing, from Formula 1 on down through the ranks. Vilarino competed with the series that season with an eye on the future.
“I was looking to drive in the World Touring Car championship, and the team I was racing for told me there was a championship in Euro-Racecar – an FIA series that in the future can become a NASCAR series,” Vilarino said. “This really interested me. It's very exotic. Some of the NASCAR (officials) who come to Europe say, 'This is really nice. Europe is really nice.' But when we come to (the United States), we say, 'This is nice. The United States is nice.' It's very exotic to us.
“I thought this could be good for my career, and I got involved in it.”
Shortly after the 2011 season ended, Galpin sent an email to teams informing them of an important announcement for the series.
“You didn't need to be a genius to figure out what it was,” Vilarino said. “I didn't sleep all night. I was thinking, this is going to be NASCAR. It's going to have the name. I already had a lot of motivation to win the championship, but when it became NASCAR, I had even more and more.”
For most Europeans, Vilarino said, their NASCAR exposure comes in the form of highlight packages featuring the biggest wrecks and movies like “Days Of Thunder.” The challenge is in getting European fans of motorsports to understand that oval-track racing isn't as easy as driving around in circles.
But before the cars could get onto the track, there first needed to be a car to race.
“We had to design the chassis, go through crash tests, and choose all the parts that compose our cars,” Galpin said. “That was the toughest part of the plan. As you know FIA tests are very, very difficult. So that was the big part. After that, we had to find the first drivers to join the adventure.”
A test at the world-famous Spa was an eye-opener for both fans and competitors alike. Both in the way the stock cars perform, but also in the way they race once on the track.
While most European sports car racers have the best of everything in terms of technology – from brakes to gear boxes – the stock car puts the focus back in the hands of the driver.
“I was like, 'OK, this is our identity. This is real racing,'” Galpin said. “It's exactly the NASCAR saying, 'Everything else is just a game.' That's right, and that's what drivers enjoy about our cars – it's all about the driver.
“We have a real car for real drivers. That's what we're doing.”
It's one of the things that Vilarino enjoys the most about NASCAR racing, despite a learning curve involved in everything from the car's actual performance to the rules and regulations that NASCAR uses for its live events. And Galpin has already started the thinking about how to add high-banked race tracks to attract even more interest.
With a schedule that had previously only included road courses, Euro Racecar held its inaugural oval race this past season in Tours, France.
“People who hadn't been involved in oval racing came to us and said they'd never seen anything like it. Every lap something happens, and they are really excited about it. It's a great thing.”
“People think oval racing is easy,” Vilarino said. “Even if (our test) was on a very short (quarter-mile) track, a very special one, it was not an unusual oval track. It was still very difficult to learn all the rules – all the caution periods and those things – but it's really exciting. The way NASCAR rules are done during the races, it means that NASCAR racing is a show. Racing in Europe is just racing – it's just racing and it's not just for the drivers.
“Here, it's for everybody. The fans who were watching the race on our tour, they saw for the first time a green-white-checkered finish, and they were amazed. They all said what they were watching there said it was incredible.
“That's great, because racing is for the fans.”
ROOKIE EXPERIENCE: Austin Dyne missed the first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway in February, but he still rallied to post eight Top-10 finishes in 14 races.
Dyne, of Malibu, Calif., finished eighth in the overall K&N Pro Series West standings and won the series' Rookie of the Year title. He scored Top-5 finishes at both the Miller Motorsports Park road course and the half-mile Sandia Motorsports Park.
“It was our goal the whole year,” Dyne said. “We knew it would be a challenge after missing the first race. It's really hard with the new points system to catch up. We just tried to get as many Top-10s as we could – that was our goal every race we got into. We were able to do that quite a bit. Overall, it was a pretty good year.”
Now, the 20-year-old Dyne will join series champion Dylan Kwasniewski in a move to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2013. The two drivers will be teammates at Turner Motorsports.
“I'm really looking forward to the new challenge. All the best guys are in the East, and you're a lot closer to all the big teams. We're really looking forward to it.”