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Thursday, April 11, 2013
It's rally time for Nelson Piquet Jr.

By Brant James
ESPN.com

Nelson Piquet Jr.'s flirtation with rally began thusly: momentarily wealthy Brazilian man enlists famous Brazilian Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello to organize his own personal "Race of Champions" in Sao Paulo in 2011. Piquet, then a full-time driver in the NASCAR Truck series, does well enough sliding Minis around in the mucky and bump-laden course -- he finishes second -- to intrigue some local rally organizers and competitors.

Nelson Piquet Jr.
Nationwide Series driver Nelson Piquet Jr. will compete in the X Games RallyCross event in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, on April 21.

Handshakes are done, dialogue is opened. He tests a rally car twice in South America.

Two years later that one-off slide through the slop brings Piquet, now a series regular and former race winner in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, back to rally and his home country, where he will compete next week in the X Games RallyCross event in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil.

"It's not a very exciting story," said Piquet, "but that's the story."

Piquet hopes to enliven the plotline even though he will be contesting his first Global RallyCross event -- "I'm a virgin," he conceded. Still, the 27-year-old thinks he has the skill set to compete at a high level.

"I'm pretty confident it's not going to be pretty easy, but very, very doable, just because I think we're so high-speed in NASCAR going around these corners," he said in a phone interview with ESPN.com. "In these cars we're always sliding the cars and most of the time we're correcting these cars. You never want to drive a tight car. You only want to drive a loose car, so if we're driving these 180 mph, once we come down to 40 mph, 50 mph, four-wheel drive, I think it's going to be a little bit easier for me to handle it. So I'm not too worried about it."

Piquet said he had sought the advice -- and would again on Thursday -- of the Nationwide Series' more accomplished rallyist, Roush Fenway Racing driver Travis Pastrana. The X Games event is part of the GRC schedule, which this season includes events at Bristol Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"He said, 'Look, Nelson … you're sort of driving a bit sideways, you use the handbrake. If you get sort of close to a good setup you're fine,'" Piquet related Pastrana's advice. "Over here you need to be into the details of detail to be OK."

Nearly all of the Foz course will be dirt, presenting a new challenge for Piquet in his V-6, nearly 500-horsepower Mitsubishi Lancer.

Pastrana, who is set to contest his second full GRC season with his eponymous team, also has offered Piquet advice on managing the schedule with his NASCAR commitments. After racing at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, Piquet will test his No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet at Darlington Raceway on Monday and Tuesday before departing for Brazil on Wednesday.

Piquet could be a threat in a field that includes defending GRC champion Tanner Foust if he is as quick a study in rally as he has been in stock cars.

The son and namesake of a three-time Formula One champion, Piquet was fired by the Renault F1 team in 2009 after details emerged that he had followed team orders to crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix to benefit teammate Fernando Alonso, embroiling him in a political and legal morass. Piquet won twice and finished seventh in points in 2012 in his second full Truck series campaign and won a Nationwide race at Road America the same year. He is currently 14th in Nationwide points after five races.

It's a near certainty this rally experience will run smoother than his first, or at least last longer.

"I think the guy went bankrupt the year after, so that ended that," he said of the benefactor of the 2011 event in Sao Paulo. "It wasn't very good. The track got very bumpy and the Minis weren't prepared for that amount of bumps and holes.

"We started destroying a lot of Minis because obviously the drivers were very aggressive, but in the last race it started raining a lot. Like, a lot, and it got very muddy and the Minis wouldn't move, nearly."

But Piquet had moved well enough around the course to open a new opportunity with the team owners who had supplied the race cars.

"I went and drove twice with them, and from that, these guys said there is this championship coming up, [Global RallyCross] X Games. I said, 'If you manage to put it together, I am all in for it,'" Piquet recalled.