When you do something spectacular or silly once — like bungee-jumping off the Rainbow Bridge, say, while naked — it’s unique. When you do it twice, it’s copy cat. It’s why bother?
Which makes me wonder why there seems to be any interest whatsoever in the announcement at the weekend that stock car racer Tony Stewart and world champion F1 racing star Lewis Hamilton plan to trade places at Watkins Glen some time this year and drive each other’s car.
What’s the point?
It’s been done before, of course. That time, it truly was unique — and there was a purpose behind it.
In June 2003, just before the Canadian Grand Prix, Williams F1 (then known as Williams Grand Prix Engineering) sent a BMW-Williams race car and driver Juan Pablo Montoya to Indianapolis to trade places with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and his DuPont Chevrolet.
The story line for the switcheroo was that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wanted publicity for two big races coming up at the track — the Brickyard 400 and the U.S. Grand Prix.
The real reason, although never publicized, was to give Gordon a test in an F1 car. Montoya was just along for the ride.
And the reason for the test? F1 was being dominated by Michael Schumacher and it was boring. There were no stars on the horizon. Montoya was leaving for McLaren at the end of the season and Williams had a seat open. Williams was being sponsored by Hewlett-Packard; its major associate sponsor was Budweiser. Both U.S. companies were keen to have an American driver in the car.
Gordon, at the time, was dominating NASCAR, and had for several years. The thinking was that he might be looking for a challenge.
That he was up for the test, let there be no doubt. In six laps, Montoya’s best time around the 4.28 km Indianapolis Grand Prix track was 1:15.2. Gordon’s best lap was 1:16.5.
To put that into perspective, Michael Schumacher's pole-winning time for the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix was 1:10.7. But remember: that time was set after two days of practice, with rubber on the track. Montoya and Gordon went out on a green track and had six laps apiece. Total.
Also for the record, Gordon, during his setup run in the Winston Cup car, turned in a lap of one minute, 38.8 seconds; Montoya's best time during his six laps was 1:39.9.
Now, Gordon was just completely knocked out by the experience, suggesting that he’d never done anything in his life to compare with driving a Formula One race car. Montoya also expressed interest in the stock car, but for him it must have been like going from a roller coaster to the Log Ride.
The “Tradin’ Paint” exercise attracted major media from around the world. The three major U.S. TV networks attended (Fox wasn’t really a player at the time) and the Speed Channel recorded a one-hour special.
In the end, although intrigued, Gordon didn’t bite. Frank Williams said in Montreal that although he’d love to have Gordon in the car in 2004, the price he'd have to pay for a rookie driver was too high (which was a very funny line, when you think about it).
So there was a purpose to that exercise in 2003. What purpose will be served by having Stewart and Hamilton trade places?
Unlike Montoya, who found himself unemployed in F1 and was rescued by Chip Ganassi, who’d run him in CART, Lewis Hamilton will never race in NASCAR.
And Tony Stewart, unlike Gordon at the time, is neither good enough nor ambitious enough to even think about F1 as a future career.
It doesn’t make sense. So why do it?
Particularly when, like just about everybody else who follows motorsports these days, you immediately think of two words when a race driver considers leaving his or her comfort zone: Robert Kubica.