CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Santino Ferrucci spent four hours in the simulator Friday, picked up some Bojangles french fries and headed to the team shop for last-minute preparations for his NASCAR debut.
Ferrucci is hitting a reset for the third time in his short career, moving from IndyCar to NASCAR for what he hopes will be a firm landing spot. He will drive for Sam Hunt Racing in the Xfinity Series and when he’s given the command to start the engines Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it will be the first time Ferrucci has even started his new race car.
He’s set to drive the next five Xfinity Series races and hopes to push his calendar to as many as 20 events this year. Ferrucci is in the process of relocating to North Carolina — hence his new affinity for the Charlotte-based Bojangles chicken chain — and adjusting to stock cars after so many years driving in open-wheel series.
“I’m fortunate that I am still young enough to be able to roll with it,” Ferrucci said Friday. “NASCAR the Xfinity Series particularly, the drivers are my generation. I’m not old for Xfinity. I think what’s cool is that I’ve driven everything and I’m kind of proven, I think that’s helped and everyone seems to be excited to see what I can do in a stock car.”
Ferrucci spent the last two seasons in IndyCar, where he turned after flaming out in Europe. He spent his childhood hoping to be the next American driver in Formula One and his journey took him from go-karting in Connecticut to European junior racing in Italy and finally a development deal with the Haas F1 team.
It fell apart in 2018 when Ferrucci, then 20, purposely crashed into his teammate at the end of an F2 race. He refused to appear before race stewards to discuss his actions and was later reprimanded for driving with a gloveless hand holding a cellphone.
He was fined almost $80,000, suspended for four races and dropped by his team and returned to the United States looking for new work.
Ferrucci landed with Dale Coyne Racing for a successful two-year stint — he finished fourth in last year’s Indianapolis 500 and was the 2019 rookie of the year — but sponsorship challenges forced him to look outside of IndyCar this year. It led him to NASCAR team owner Sam Hunt, who is building a program with aid from Toyota.
Hunt gets its cars and engines from Joe Gibbs Racing, but its a small budget team that requires Ferrucci to take a hands-on role.
“I’m doing my own interior work, installing my own steering wheel, doing my own seat and making sure the pedals are correct,” Ferrucci said. “I really like working on it and the stock car is very simplistic when it comes to the interior stuff. It all makes sense for me.”
That’s about all Ferrucci has been able to do ahead of his Saturday debut. COVID-19 restrictions have cut all testing and practice, so he’s never actually driven the No. 26 Toyota. His only experience in a full-bodied car was a super late model test last year.
He’s practiced pit stops in a garage, and earlier this week put on his full uniform and helmet and sat inside the cockpit of his car just to get acclimated.
“I just wanted to make sure I felt comfortable,” Ferrucci said. “Normally when you make a seat you go out, you test to see if there’s something you need to adjust, and then go back out. I don’t have that luxury, so I just sat in the seat for two hours and waited for something to get sore.”
As Ferrucci works on a NASCAR schedule he remains hopeful he’ll also make some IndyCar starts. He said he’s had early talks with two IndyCar teams about the Indy 500 and noted there’s a vacancy for the ovals at Coyne, where former Formula One driver Romain Grosjean has opted to only run the street and road courses.
But his focus right now is on NASCAR and Ferrucci said he’d like to build a full season with Hunt. The first step is Saturday at Homestead, a track he will see for the first time before the race begins.
“I don’t want to wreck it. The first priority is to bring the car back in one piece,” Ferrucci said. “The problem with Homestead is you have to rip the wall, so keeping it in one piece, maybe not so much. A few scrapes I’d be OK with. I hope to learn through the first two stages and hopefully by the third stage know enough where I can kind of open it up and have some fun.”
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