A number of the world’s top athletes are born into sporting families. The NFL has the Mannings. The NHL has the Sutters. Major League Baseball has a number of legacy players including instances where fathers and sons played in the league concurrently. Likewise many of today’s race car drivers are following in their fathers’ footsteps. Legacies marked by names like Andretti, Earnhardt, Petty, Unser and Gurney among many others are growing with each generation. Among them are the sons of Brazilian racing legend and three-time Formula 1 World Champion, Nelson Piquet. Geraldo, Laszlo and Pedro are all deeply involved in motorsports but I got a chance to chat with Nelson Piquet Jr. (aka Nelsinho) who will be contesting the 2014 Red Bull GRC championship in Las Vegas this week with the SH Racing #07 Ford Fiesta ST.
For the majority of his early career Piquet Jr. was an open-wheel specialist, moving up through the ranks of karting, F3 and GP2 debuting in Formula 1 in 2008. Despite his obvious talent, circumstances forced him to move on to NASCAR competing in the Camping World Truck Series and some Nationwide Series events. Although that chapter of his career is still being written, Piquet Jr. raced his first full Red Bull GRC season in 2014 with SH Racing led by team owner James “Sulli” Sullivan. Not abandoning his open-wheel background, Piquet Jr. is also part of the FIA’s groundbreaking Formula E series which kicked off in Beijing, China. In a sport where teams are barely making it through a full schedule and drivers with deep pockets but mediocre skills regularly buy seats in top-tier race cars, it’s always a treat to meet someone who didn’t just inherit a famous name, but is building his own reputation for excellence with passion, guts and determination. Here’s my 5 minutes with Nelson Piquet Jr.:
MLAS: If we could talk about your background a little bit. Not many people can say their Dad was a Formula 1 World Champion. I’ve talked to a couple guys whose Dads accomplished great feats in motorsports but growing up, Dad was just Dad. When did you realize he had an extraordinary job and did that change in perception mean anything to you as a kid?
Nelson Piquet Jr.: When you’re young of course you don’t really understand – your father is your father. He started taking me karting when I was young and so he brought me to racing. When you get a bit older you start to understand and my father really is my hero in motorsport. He wasn’t just a great driver and a three-time F1 World Champion, but he did a lot in his time in Formula 1 on developing the cars and helping to develop new technologies. I don’t think it ever changed my perception of him, but as my knowledge of motorsport grew as I got older I appreciated more and more what he contributed to our sport.
MLAS: Racing really is a family affair for the Piquets, like the Andrettis and Earnhardts. When did you start to take it seriously?
NPJr: When I was karting when I was young I would spend as much time as I could at the track. I would leave school, go to the kart track and stay until it was dark, hanging with my mechanics and just soaking up as much as I could. I think it starts to become really serious when you’re finally in cars. I raced for two years in South American F3 and then, when I was 16, moved to England to race in British F3. It’s already very serious by that point and a profession. Everyone racing in those types of categories wants to make it and progress their career.
MLAS: Did you have to convince your parents that you could make racing a career?
NPJr: No, my mom and my father have always been very supportive. My father obviously has the best point of view and he saw me racing in go-karts and then F3 and supported me in making it my career.
MLAS: After overcoming your fair share of controversy in your career did this, your first full season in Red Bull GRC with SH Racing Rallycross, feel like a fresh start?
NPJr: Doing full-time rallycross was a slight change of direction, having been racing in NASCAR these past few years, but it wasn’t a whole new thing as I had done a few rallycross races since I’ve lived in America and really enjoyed them. We had a good offer with a great team and decided to try to see what would happen doing it full time. I haven’t left NASCAR behind, I’ve done a few races this year and I’m just exploring opportunities.
MLAS: You’re also making history with the FIA’s Formula E series. With sponsorship harder to come by than ever, is the versatility to switch to open-wheel more important than ever?
NPJr: Versatility is definitely important. The first part of my career was in single-seaters so it’s great to be doing that again in Formula E, as it’s so different to NASCAR and rallycross. I’m really enjoying the variety of my racing.
MLAS: Racing cars is fun but success is usually hard-fought. As the saying goes, “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.” Why do you keep doing it, Nelson?
NPJr: That’s easy, I love it. It’s something that I eat, breathe and sleep and the best thing for me is to race as much as possible. You’ll often find me on a ‘weekend off’ finding a race at a kart track or something to take part in as I’m nowhere more at home than in the driving seat of a race car.
MLAS: We don’t deny that danger is a part of motorsports. You were there when Nick Heidfeld had the terrible accident in China and of course, we’re all praying for Jules Bianchi. How do you cope with or even prepare for such possibilities, especially when seeing fellow drivers involved in crashes?
NPJr: It’s something as a driver that you can’t think about. We all know but you can’t be fearful that it can happen or you wouldn’t be able to do your job. I’m praying for Jules.
MLAS: Do you think someday you’ll trade in your helmet for an owner’s hat?
NPJr: Maybe. We’ve had the Piquet Sports team for many years and I raced under that team during Formula 3 and GP2 Series days, so I’ve already had some experience of having more responsibility than just being a driver. It’s definitely interesting and now my younger brother Pedro, who is 16, has started racing single-seaters quite seriously, it’s interesting to look at working to help young drivers.
MLAS: How do you relax and refocus between events, especially between such different series as Red Bull GRC and Formula E?
NPJr: There’s always lots of work stuff to do also between races, so you can never entirely relax, but it’s just doing normal things like getting back home to North Carolina and doing laundry, getting a hair cut and things like that! In the summer it’s nice to occasionally go on a boat on Lake Norman, I’ve always loved going out on the water and maybe doing some wakeboarding. It’s getting a bit cold for that now, so there’s always the Playstation!
MLAS: Please complete this sentence: Please complete this sentence: If I wasn’t a race car driver, I would be a _________________.
NPJr: If I wasn’t a race car driver, I would still be working in racing somehow, as a team manager or in marketing or something. New developments in media really fascinate me; I love all the social media stuff of being able to connect straight with the fans and it’s something as a driver I work hard at.
A Final Word
You can see Nelson Piquet Jr. battle it out against a stacked field of competitors in Las Vegas this week at The LINQ Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on November 4-5, 2014. Tickets are still available at http://rbgrclv.com/. Two-day tickets start at USD $55 and $25 for kids aged six to twelve. The delayed TV broadcast will be on NBC, Sunday November 16th at 1:30pm EST; and again on NBC Sports, Thursday November 20th at 1:30am EST. Also please don’t forget to connect with Nelson via the following social media links: