O’Connell first to race in all 3 NASCAR international series
Houston Chronicle Sports – By Jaylon Thompson – July 22, 2015
Two years ago, professional driver Kevin O’Connell decided to try something different. The Houston native made history in the process.
In 2015, O’Connell became the first driver to race in all three NASCAR international series (in Canada, Mexico and Europe).
O’Connell, 48, mainly competes in races designated as road course events. In 2013, he entered the American SpeedFest at the Brands Hatch Circuit in Great Britain.
Since then, O’Connell has competed in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario. He also has been to Mexico with the NASCAR Mexico Series and to Europe with the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series.
“It was new, and no one had done it yet,” O’Connell said of competing in all three international series. “When you go into places like Europe, Canada and Mexico, the talent is very deep. There is a very high level of competition, and it makes for some good racing.”
Like father, like son
O’Connell grew up in Clear Lake and graduated from C.E King High School, where he was a three-sport athlete in baseball, basketball, and track and field. He has been around racing his entire life.
His father, Gus O’Connell Jr., raced cars in Huntington Long Island, N.Y., and in the 1960s competed in regional races for the Sports Car Club of America.
Kevin O’Connell fell in love with driving in the late 1980s while participating in street races on Rankin Road. He drove a blue Ford Mustang and was joined by 500 car enthusiasts who shared his passion.
It was that passion that led him to become a NASCAR driver.
“The competition and the athletic part came from playing Texas high school sports,” O’Connell said. “The car part came from the street racing on Rankin Road. These together are what led me to want to pursue something on a professional level.”
O’Connell has been racing professionally since the 1990s and has competed in the Xfinity Series for NASCAR. Also, he has driven road courses like Road America in Wisconsin.
In 2014, he finished third at Gardner Denver 200 (at Road America) and was named the Mobil 1 Driver of the Race. He calls the race his signature moment.
“What is significant is that I was driving for a smaller team that didn’t have a top-five finish in over five years,” O’Connell said. “We got them their only top-three finish all season. It set the stage for us as road racers against some of the bigger teams.”
O’Connell has continued as a road course specialist. His unique schedule allows him to join different teams. Recently, he signed on with Rick Ware Racing to compete in the Xfinity Series and Canadian Tire Series races.
He also is looking to compete in the Tudor United Sports Car Championship series, which is organized by the International Motor Sports Association and runs in Canada and the United States.
A little bit of this and that
O’Connell also has experience with sports cars.
He has raced in the Rolex Series and the IMSA Blancpain Lamborghini Super Trofeo Racing Series. In the IMSA series, O’Connell drove the No. 9 Lamborghini of Houston and finished second in the series. He plans on competing again in the future.
“We will continue to do some of these international events and mix in some sports car stuff with the NASCAR,” O’Connell said. “We are full-time, but we aren’t running full schedules at any one series.”
One of the series O’Connell races in is the NASCAR Mexico Series. It is a popular circuit that NASCAR has tried to build around and is seen as a steppingstone for Hispanic drivers to reach the Xfinity or Sprint Cup series in the U.S.
“It’s a lot more than stock car racing in Mexico,” said NASCAR vice president of regional and touring series George Silbermann. “We already have seen some of the really talented drivers from down there come up and compete at a very high level in the United States. We kind of tie it all together. With our NASCAR Mexico Series, it’s one of the cornerstones for our marketing division in the United States.”
On the right track
NASCAR has showcased the Mexico Series in the U.S. by holding a race at Phoenix International Raceway since 2014.
Many drivers have come from Mexico and competed in the Xfinity and Sprint Cup series. For Daniel Suarez, the series has helped him achieve the dream of being a NASCAR driver.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to start learning about NASCAR,” Suarez said. “Right now, I am already in the States, but I see so many other options to try doing some things. To make it to the big series, it is a good opportunity to race in the NASCAR Mexico and NASCAR K&N.”
O’Connell has seen firsthand the talented drivers in the Mexico series. He raced in the Toyota 120 at Phoenix International Raceway and is headed to Mexico City to race in November.
“What I thought about the Mexico series is a lot of those guys have been racing together for a long time,” he said. “The quality of the racing is pretty good. We ran the Mexico City in 2008 as a part of the Busch series. There was a lot of fans there, and NASCAR was very well-received.”
O’Connell has come a long way from Rankin Road in Houston. He hopes to continue his international success.
“We will do it for the next couple of years,” he said. “Then we will reassess.”