Friday 5: For 2 NASCAR drivers from Ukraine, war causes pain, grief

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Igor Romanov apologizes, although he doesn’t need to do so. One of two drivers from Ukraine in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, Romanov speaks English well, but there are times when he pauses, waves his arms, and searches for the right word as he discusses the impact of war in his country. 

“It’s really hard when you are emotional, you forget some words,” he told NBC Sports.

Romanov lived in Kyiv, Ukraine until Russian missiles rained on his city and troops advanced. The explosions were distant, yet the shock waves rattled his windows. 

“We need to go,” Romanov told his wife. 

He, his wife, 10-year-old son and the family cat fled the city shortly after the attack started in February. They traveled nearly 350 miles to Lviv in western Ukraine.

Romanov sees videos and pictures of the devastation in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Buildings he is familiar with are destroyed or damaged. The shopping mall destroyed by a missile — the impact caught on a security camera — he knows well. He was there a couple of weeks before the war began when he had a meeting about having a new TV studio there.  

In his role as a director of photography at a Ukrainian TV station, he sees his hometown’s devastation daily. Even so, the notion is hard to fathom.

“I remember in my head, all these places are still like they were before the war,” he said via Zoom. “I see the photos (of the damage). I post them on Facebook because I want the world community to see this crazy destruction.”

The images are painful to view.  

“It’s really hard to see that,” Romanov said. “I understand how many lives were destroyed, how many dreams were destroyed. It’s probably the hardest thing. I see how many children have died. It’s not a problem to build a new building or something like that (but) we will (not have those lives) back.”

A friend of his, who was a cameraman, was killed in Mariupol, the besieged port city that has been a focal point in the war and faces a devastating humanitarian crisis. 

As Romanov discusses the war, he talks about dreams lost. That’s personal to him. While he’d always been a motorsports fan — he served as an announcer for NASCAR races on Ukraine TV until the war started — he dreamed of competing.

Igor Romanov has run select races in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series the past two seasons. (Photo courtesy of Igor Romanov)

Romanov became a fan of IndyCar racing in the late 1990s. He bought a satellite system and soon saw NASCAR races.

“When I was watching the Daytona 500 for the first time in 2000, I said, ‘Wow, it is absolutely fantastic!’ I became a real big fan of NASCAR,” he said.

Bobby Labonte became Romanov’s favorite driver. When Labonte competed in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2017-18, Romanov met him and told him of his desire to race. Labonte encouraged him to pursue his dream.

Romanov went to a racing school when he was 40 years old. He made his EuroNASCAR2 debut in 2020 at age 44. Romanov made his EuroNASCAR Pro debut in 2021. He is unsure of his racing plans this season, but NASCAR has provided some comfort in the way teams and drivers have supported various causes for Ukraine.

“We are really grateful to the United States of America,” Romanov told NBC Sports. “Really grateful for the NASCAR community, for Richard Childress, Roger Penske, Stefan Parsons, Hailie Deegan … Team Hendrick. It’s really important for us. We are proud to be Ukrainian. I want one day to come on one of the (NASCAR) circuits with the Ukrainian flag.”

Childress spurred a move to donate ammunition to Ukraine soldiers. Team Penske cars have decals of Ukraine flags, and the Penske Corporation made a $1 million donation to the World Central Kitchen, which provides meals in response to humanitarian crises. 

Parsons’ BJ McLeod Motorsports Xfinity car ran “Ukraine Strong” on the hood at Las Vegas. Deegan’s Truck for David Gilliland Racing had the Ukraine flag on the bed of the vehicle at Atlanta. Team owner Rick Hendrick and the Hendrick Automotive Group committed $200,000 to Samaritan’s Purse to support disaster assistance and pledged $2,000 toward Ukraine relief for every lap a Hendrick Motorsports car led at Las Vegas. 

The donations are meaningful, just as are images of the Ukraine flag.

Yevgen Sokolovskiy

Yevgen Sokolovskiy, who is from Odessa, Ukraine, also races in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series and is never far from his country’s flag. Sokolovskiy, a fan of Jimmie Johnson because they both drove the No. 48 in stock cars, wears a blue-and-gold wristband that represents his country’s flag with his watch.

He’s also had Ukraine’s flag on his car.

“Last two years I have questions from people, ‘Why do you drive with the Ukraine flag? You’ve lived in Germany for 20 years,’” Sokolovskiy told NBC Sports via Zoom. “I am a citizen of Ukraine. I have a Ukraine passport. … I am proud of my country.”

While Odessa, Ukraine is not on the frontlines, the war has impacted Sokolovskiy’s family. His mother and sister were in Odessa when the war began. 

That first day produced a flurry of calls and messages from friends and family throughout the country. He told his mother to take his sister and leave. They did and are safe. 

“We wait,” Sokolovskiy said. “We’re looking every day at the news. We’re waiting for positive news.”

He also struggles with seeing the destruction in his country.

“It’s not easy to see because it’s a very, very beautiful city, Kyiv,’ he said. “Very, very beautiful city Kharkiv. Odessa the same.”

The war has changed how Romanov views life. He used to look ahead to summer vacations, NASCAR Euro Whelen Series races, his next broadcast and a possible trip to the U.S. to visit NASCAR shrines, including Daytona Beach’s Streamline Hotel, the birthplace of NASCAR.

But now?

“I’m thinking only about tomorrow because I don’t know how the situation will change in the next couple of hours,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m worried about the lost dream. It’s really important. When you have a dream, you have the possibility to move, to do something not only for you personally but for all people around you. 

“First thing I realized when I come with my family to a more safe place than Kyiv … I’m worried they lost this dream. The night before, I’m thinking about my future, the future of my family. … After (Feb. 24) I didn’t understand the future. I didn’t understand if we will wake up tomorrow or not.

“Now, I believe we’ll get our dreams in our hearts. I think it’s really important for every people on our planet. … After my broadcasts of NASCAR Cup races on Ukrainian TV, I told my audience, ‘You may believe in your dream. Your dream knows the way. If you believe in your dream, you will find the right way.’ 

“Now, I think every one of us need to believe in our dream.”

Igor Romanov broadcasting the Clash at the Coliseum in early February on Ukraine TV. His last broadcast was the Daytona 500 before the war began and halted such programming. (Photo: Igor Romanov)

2. Cup future?

Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, says “the window is not closed” for a potential shift to Cup, but she told NBC Sports’ Zach Sturniolo this week that the timing would need to be right.

JR Motorsports has looked at a Cup operation but there have been several challenges. Those have ranged from acquiring a charter to if the team would need another partner since co-owner Rick Hendrick would have to divest from the team because no person can have ownership in more than one Cup team.

Several teams have entered Cup recently because of the potential long-term savings with the Next Gen car. Live Fast Motorsports, 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Petty GMS Motorsports and Kaulig Racing all have joined Cup as full-time teams since 2021. 

“To me, it’s all about timing,” Earnhardt Miller said. “What’s going to make sense, right? So, we were thinking through it last year, in terms of the new car. Obviously, that kind of propelled our thought process on … that barrier of entry and … what we thought would be more competitive.”

She said team officials had conversations about charters, but things didn’t fall into place to do a deal.

“I’m really all about timing,” Earnhardt Miller said. “I don’t like to rush things. If I absolutely feel 100 percent good about it, I’m ready to pull the trigger. But if I have reservations, I’m ready to do my due diligence.”

She and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have relied on Hendrick for help as they pondered a Cup operation.

“He was our first call because there’s not much that he’s put his finger on that hasn’t went well,” Earnhardt Miller said. “How do we do this? Can we do this? What do you think about us doing this? And they’ve been right alongside of us to try to answer questions and help us navigate what it could look like.”

If JR Motorsports had a Cup team, what would the ownership structure look like with Hendrick having to divest?

“In a perfect world, I don’t want partners,” Earnhardt Miller told NBC Sports. “I like doing things. I think we’re capable of doing things, where we have a great group here and management here and would have to fill out our team.”

She also acknowledges that a new partner could benefit a move to Cup.

“We have a good track record, we’ve got a great brand in JR Motorsports, we’ve got a great personality with Dale Jr.,” Earnhardt Miller said. “He really wants to participate and be in the Cup Series. So, you know, in the perfect world, we would either be majority (owner) or not have a partner but, you know, the world’s not perfect.”

3. Greater parity

An average of seven different teams are recording top-10 finishes per race through the first six events of the season. Last year, an average of 6.1 different teams scored top-10 finishes per race through the first six events.

During Wednesday’s MotorMouths (6-7 p.m. ET Mondays and Wednesdays on Peacock), the panel was asked who they were worried about. NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty, noting the balance in the sport, took a different approach.

“I’m worried about the establishment and what I mean by that is Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs,” Petty said. “The guys that run up front week in and week out. Eight cars in the top 10 with two organizations. … These guys are showing up individually, Kyle Busch might show up. Joey Logano might show up. If we look at it, this past weekend at COTA, six different organizations in the top 10.

“We’ve had races where nine different organizations were in the top 10. Where is the establishment? Where is that cornerstone that what we felt was the solid part of the sport, the sharp end of the stick, those guys dominating week in and week out. They haven’t shown up.

“I’m not saying they won’t show up. I am concerned … I am concerned because they haven’t shown up. … They had all the opportunities to show up before JTG showed up, before Petty GMS showed up, before Trackhouse showed up. They had every opportunity to be the first guys out of the gate and they’re not.”

No organization has had a car place in the top 10 in all six races this year. Last year, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing each had at least one car place in the top 10 in each of the first six races.

In three races a year ago, Hendrick and JGR cars combined for 60% of the top 10. That’s happened only once this year (both teams combined for 70% of the top 10 at Las Vegas).

4. Return to Victory Lane

While this season has been celebrated for having three first-time winners in the the first six points races, it also means that a number of former champions have yet to reach Victory Lane this season. 

Reigning Cup champ Kyle Larson is the only former champion to win a points race in the series this year (Joey Logano won the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race).

Here is a look at the winless streaks for former Cup champions entering Sunday’s race at Richmond Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

49 races – Kevin Harvick

35 races – Joey Logano

32 races – Brad Keselowski

23 races – Kyle Busch

22 races – Chase Elliott

21 races – Kurt Busch

14 races – Martin Truex Jr.

4 races – Kyle Larson 

 5. Young talent 

Three drivers are scheduled to make their Xfinity debut Saturday at Richmond. That equals the number of drivers who have made their series debut in the first five races of the season.

Making their debut Saturday are: Derek Griffith, Rajah Caruth and Howie DiSavino III.

Griffith, 25, is the 2018 Pro All Stars champion. DiSavino, 21, grew up in Chesterfield, Virginia, which is a short drive to Richmond Raceway. Caruth, 19, started racing less than three years ago. 

Griffith will drive the No. 26 for Sam Hunt Racing. Caruth will drive the No. 44 for Alpha Prime Racing. DiSavino will be in the No. 45 for Alpha Prime Racing. 

Parker Chase has the best finish this season for a driver making their series debut. He placed 19th last weekend at Circuit of the Americas. Nick Sanchez was 26th at Phoenix. Parker Retzlaff was 36th at Phoenix after qualifying sixth.