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USA USA
Interview

NASCAR's Shane van Gisbergen on the race that changed his life

The man known as SVG talks about the wild win from one year ago that led to a whole new life, why he ditched Supercars, and getting used to NASCAR.

Race winner Shane van Gisbergen, Trackhouse Racing, Chevrolet Camaro

Shane van Gisbergen on the podium for his life-changing win in the 2023 Grant Park 165 Cup Series race

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

One year ago, three-time Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen climbed into a white-and-blue NASCAR Cup Series car on the streets of Chicago. It was the NASCAR Cup Series’ first time on a street course, and van Gisbergen’s first time racing in NASCAR’s top level—in a one-off entry backed by a part-time road crew, no less. Record rainfall flooded the track, and the television announcers couldn’t even pronounce his name. 

Then Shane van Gisbergen won

The (then) 34-year-old from New Zealand had run the 2023 Chicago Street Course race in Trackhouse Racing’s “Project91” entry, which serves as a “star car” for drivers from other series. The car is less of a NASCAR audition and more of a showcase—a fun way to see what a talented outsider can do in NASCAR. Only two drivers have raced with Project91: van Gisbergen and retired Formula One champion Kimi Räikkönen, who ran well but never achieved a strong finish in the car. When a star driver tries a different type of racing, it’s more about the show than the performance.

Van Gisbergen’s debut victory became the catalyst for him deciding to move to America and pursue NASCAR full time this year, and looking back, he’s struck by how unexpected it all was. 

“No one thought we would come out and win that race,” van Gisbergen tells me, looking back at the race that changed his life. “That feeling when the radio cracks open and the engineer or crew chief comes over, screaming about how exciting the win was, and that short-term spike of emotions you get—it's hard to explain, but it's an amazing feeling.”

The race was treacherous, with drivers skating through the rainfall all day. Formula One champion Jenson Button spun trying to get to pit road. Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin slid into a tire barrier on lap two; Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick did the same later, with water gushing from the barriers on impact. Midway through the race, more than a dozen cars piled up in the same corner.

Shane van Gisbergen celebrates his 2023 victory at Chicago

Shane van Gisbergen celebrates his 2023 victory at Chicago

Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images

With 16 laps to go, van Gisbergen ran eighth. Drivers were on different pit strategies, with some teams choosing to stay out on old tires for track position and others pitting for fresh ones. Van Gisbergen pitted, giving him more speed but more cars to pass. 

And pass he did. Van Gisbergen swallowed each car up, overtaking race leader Justin Haley with five laps to go. Soon after, one of the television announcers began to comment: “Van Gi-vis-bu-bur…” They abandoned the thought. 

Van Gisbergen sailed to the win, making NASCAR history and changing the trajectory of his own life. The Americans who didn’t know his name learned it, and the victory landed him where he is now: full-time in NASCAR.

“On the cool-down lap, everyone was coming up and hitting the back of the car or hitting the side of the car,” van Gisbergen said. “They were all doing the thumbs-up and stuff. It was overwhelming. Stopping on the front straight, all the people—it was just so unexpected.”

It was the first time a driver had won their Cup Series debut in 60 years. But there’s a reason van Gisbergen chose that race: He’s a street-course ace, and the Cup Series’ new race car, the “Next Gen,” is less like a traditional NASCAR car (read: built to turn one way) and more like a sports car (built to turn left and right). That makes it a friendlier machine for international racing stars like van Gisbergen, who drove the Chicago race alongside fellow one-off entry Button. Even if Cup drivers are more adept at road courses than ever before, van Gisbergen came in with an advantage.

Still, everyone ooh’d and aah’d at him winning a race while driving on the left side of the car (versus the right, like an Australian Supercar). But that wasn’t nearly as difficult for van Gisbergen as working with NASCAR’s new five-speed sequential transmission and shift lever.

Shane Van Gisbergen this season, racing in the Xfinity series

Shane Van Gisbergen this season, racing in the Xfinity series

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

“I've driven left-hand drive a lot, so switching back and forth doesn't bother me too much,” van Gisbergen said. “It was just the shifting [that was different]. I never really had shifted with a sequential that kind of way. In the rally car, it had a shifter—but it was a proper rally gearbox, so you didn't have to clutch on the downchange or anything like that. The Cup car was a bit specific in that way.”

Van Gisbergen’s Chicago win came at an inflection point in his career. Australian Supercars had just introduced a new car of its own. As van Gisbergen told Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an interview last year: “The racing sucks. It’s so boring. You’re driving around at 30 percent trying to keep the tires, and everyone’s just following each other.” 

“I was pretty happy racing Supercars until last year, when the new car came out,” van Gisbergen tells me. “The way that series was going, I just didn't enjoy it. Then, you get a shiny new toy or opportunity, and it just fired me up.”

Van Gisbergen’s 2023 Chicago performance led to a quick announcement of another Cup Series road race last season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he again ran the Trackhouse Project91 car. He qualified eighth and finished 10th.

“When we did Chicago, I definitely didn't have any plan or intention to come over here or do more races,” van Gisbergen said. “That was purely a one-off. But when we got that result, stuff just snowballed so quickly. Stuff happened super fast, the way [Trackhouse team owner] Justin Marks made it happen.”

Trackhouse is a young team, but since Marks founded it in 2020, it’s changed the landscape of NASCAR. Marks says Trackhouse is an entertainment brand, which is why he didn’t name the team after himself—like many other NASCAR team owners—and why he develops ventures like Project91. Trackhouse is geared as much towards creating buzz as on-track success, and van Gisbergen’s win accomplished both.  

A year after the win, van Gisbergen is full-time in NASCAR, having signed a development deal with Trackhouse and moved to America during the offseason. He’s already won two races in the second-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series—both on road courses—with Kaulig Racing. He’s also running a few Cup races this year, with the goal of acclimating himself to NASCAR’s oval-heavy schedule before moving up to Cup full-time.

“I knew I needed a year to learn and adapt, fit in here, and settle in the country before being in the Cup Series next year,” van Gisbergen said. “Jumping into the Cup Series after a six-month preparation probably wouldn't have been very good. It would've been very, very tough to do that.”

Van Gisbergen doesn’t have any wild ambitions in NASCAR. He just wants to get to the Cup Series and master the art of NASCAR's most essential racing. 

“I want to get better at the ovals,” van Gisbergen said. “It'll be definitely awesome to win [an oval] race one day, but I know I'm a long way from that—winning one on merit. I know that I'm always going to be good on a road course. That'll just come naturally. It's the ovals I need to keep getting better at.”

As van Gisbergen settles into racing in America, he’s quick to thank a friend back in Australia for the nudge. Retired Supercars champion Marcos Ambrose, who moved Stateside to pursue NASCAR nearly 20 years ago, had been in his ear the whole time. 

“He just kept saying: ‘You’ve got to get it over there. Make it work. Try and do everything you can to get it over to the States,’” van Gisbergen said. “He was one of the first guys I rang when I knew that I was getting the drive, and he gave me so much advice about it." 

Van Gisbergen said that influence began before he even ran Chicago—the race that changed his life. 

"He was like: ‘You’ve got to try and make sure you can get full-time over there. You'll never regret it.’ And I haven't so far.”

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