Graf to run road courses for BAM
Thousands strolled through the garage area, looking to catch a glimpse of Dale Earnhardt Jr., or perhaps a snap shot of Jeff Gordon. A mere glance of nearly any firesuit-clad driver is what they craved. Yet no one gave Graf a second look.
Just days prior, Graf left his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son and traveled nearly 14 hours from his Dorham, Germany, home to be in Fontana. Not to watch the Auto Club 400, but to prepare for his NASCAR debut.
In the final week of June, Graf will cross the Atlantic again, this time hoping to also cross a cultural barrier and become the first German-born driver to compete in NASCAR's top series. The 32-year-old will be among several road course specialists attempting to qualify for the Dodge / Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
"My dream all my life is to compete among the best in motorsports," said Graf, who will be wheeling a second team car for BAM Racing in both road course races (Infineon and Watkins Glen) this season.
Providing things go well, BAM could enter Graf in as many as seven events in 2004, including ovals. Already he's proved his versatility. After a single day test session at Kentucky Speedway, Graf finished third on April 9 in the Nashville 100 ARCA race -- his first ever race on an oval.
"He's just been impressive," said Ken Schrader, BAM's full-time Nextel Cup Series driver. "He's done a phenomenal job testing the road course car. But taking him to Kentucky and working with him for a day, then when we got to race at Nashville I was really impressed. The guy has a lot of talent. He's real smooth."
Like most European racers, though, Graf's original dream was to race Formula One. It was a goal he pursued vigorously, beginning in the Suzuki Swift Cup series in 1990. He later competed in the German Formula Ford and Formula 3 series and was a test driver for McLaren.
Despite his credentials, Graf could not land a ride as a first string F1 driver.
"Unfortunately, there are only 20 Formula One drivers in the world," Graf said. "And at one stage of your career you'll figure out, 'Well, this is not going to work out for me.'"
But instead of hanging up his helmet, Graf packed his bags and his passport. He headed to the United States in 1999 to race sports cars.
"That opened up a whole new perspective in terms of racing worldwide," Graf said. "A lot of drivers in Europe, they're just stuck in their own community in Germany, which is very little you can do."
Graf's explorations opened his eyes to a world of possibility. While he lived in Atlanta from 1999 to 2001 he became intrigued by NASCAR's Cup series. And at the end of last season he approached BAM about this deal.
"I'm very thankful for BAM Racing to take, I call it risk because they didn't know exactly where I came from and what my background was," Graf said.
Graf may see the move as a gamble for the team, but BAM's owner Beth Ann Morgenthau doesn't agree.
"Well we wanted to make sure (his credentials) were real, and found out they were and from then on we felt very comfortable," she said, adding that the risk has also been diminished because Graf has brought some money to the table.
Still, it is far from a guaranteed success story. Schrader, who himself has driven just about anything with wheels, understands just how difficult Graf's transition will be and is trying to keep expectations on a realistic level.
"He hasn't run one of these races yet," Schrader said. "That's one thing we did tell him after the Nashville (ARCA) race was, 'Hey, this is not the real world. When you get in with these other cats it's gonna be different.'"
Graf accepts that reality and is ready for the challenge.
"At this level where we are right now, there's always a lot of pressure," he said. "You have to perform. It's as simple as that. If you don't perform you won't make it."
Determination is not something that Graf lacks. Case in point: His nearly 9,000-mile round trip commute, a trek he's made four times since signing the deal with BAM at the end of 2003.
"You have to sacrifice a lot and be able to donate a lot of your life to the sport," said Graf. "Otherwise it just doesn't work out."
If Graf does succeed, he will have to sacrifice something else -- his anonymity.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.