KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Long before he was known as the Fastest Indian Alive, before he became the bridge to a massive untapped market, Narain Karthikeyan was a kid with a dream of driving in Formula One.
One major roadblock stood in his way: Karthikeyan grew up in India, where there were no tracks, no infrastructure, seemingly no avenue for reaching his goal.
“It was almost like a guy from the Sahara Desert wanting to become a downhill skier,” Karthikeyan said. Turned out to just be a speed bump.
Karthikeyan overcame the restraints of proximity by using his tenacity and skill behind the wheel to become the first Indian-born driver in Formula One.
Now, he's driven himself to another, perhaps even more unlikely destination: NASCAR.
Driving in the trucks series for Starbeast Motorsports, Karthikeyan has broken through another barrier and opened the door to a whole new world of racing fans and, potentially, drivers.
“Our plan was to bring NASCAR to new markets, so of course India was a big opportunity because of the size and potential for economic growth it's been making the past five years for the future,” Starbeast owner Miguel Abaroa said. “It's going to be a top consumer market, so our goal at the very beginning was to take NASCAR to the Indian population, and Narain was the perfect vehicle to make that connection.”
So how did he get here? As you might imagine, it was a long trip.
Karthikeyan, whose full name is Kumar Ram Narain Karthikeyan, had a passion for motorsports from an early age, following in the tire tracks of his father, a former Indian national rally champion.
When he was 14, Karthikeyan saw his first Formula One race and was hooked. A year later, his father sent him to the Elf-Winfield Racing School in France to show him just how difficult reaching his dream would be.
“I was very passionate about it, and my father took me there so I could see the competition of the European and American drivers,” Karthikeyan said. “He thought if I could see the competition and say, ‘OK, it's not for us guys.' “
Karthikeyan was the fastest driver of the group and earned a scholarship, fueling his passion even more.
From there, he worked his way through the lower ranks of open-wheel racing, winning every step of the way.
In 2005, Karthikeyan landed his dream ride, driving for a full season for the Jordan Formula One Racing team, his highest finish a fourth at the United States Grand Prix. The team changed ownership and direction after the season, so Karthikeyan spent the next two years as a Formula One test driver and went on to drive for Team India in the A1 Grand Prix series.
Then came a truly unique opportunity: The driver who twice met Indian president Pratibha Patil because of his open-wheel prowess was going to give NASCAR a try.
Karthikeyan, who did an IndyCar test in 2005, accepted an offer to come to the U.S. and did well enough at an ARCA test at Daytona to earn a ride in the NASCAR trucks series — and gain a whole new perspective on racing here.
“You hear about NASCAR, obviously,” said Karthikeyan, who received one of India's highest civilian awards from Patil at the presidential palace in April. “Juan Pablo (Montoya) came here and we were racing together, so I followed him and knew it was big, but you don't realize just how big it is, the enormity of the whole thing, until you get here and see the thing for yourself.”
Same could be said for the driving.
The trucks are heavier than open-wheel cars and the downforce is much different, making them more difficult to handle. There have been adjustments to driving on a track with 39 other trucks, the bang-against-the-fenders racing that's so much a part of NASCAR, even sitting inside a car instead of being perched atop it.
Karthikeyan finished a solid 13th in his debut at Martinsville on March 27, but his second race at Kansas lasted just seven laps after he crashed into the wall trying to avoid a loose tire on the track.
“It's a very different kind of racing, but at the end of the day they're the same basics, so we just need to get Narain used to it,” Abaroa said. “There's no doubt he has the skills.”
Karthikeyan is splitting his time this season between Europe and the U.S., with plans to run at least 10 trucks races. Next year, the 32-year-old plans to drive a full season in trucks or, depending on how this season goes, move up to the Nationwide series. Then he hopes to go on to the Sprint Cup, where he wants to open the eyes of an entire country to the type of racing it offers.
“I'm in it for the long haul,” said Karthikeyan, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife. “The goal is to go to Sprint Cup as soon as possible with Starbeast Motorsports. We want to have a big following and introduce those fans to NASCAR.”
He's off to a good start: NASCAR races are being carried live on India's Neo Sports, and the series is working to give the sport more attention in the world's second-most- populated country.
The Fastest Indian Alive is still breaking barriers.