NASCAR in Mexico? In it for the long haul

After three years in Mexico City, how far has NASCAR come? It might not be in the center of the Mexican sports universe, but it is on the map, writes David Newton.

Updated: March 8, 2007, 10:53 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MEXICO CITY -- Eric Descombes and his two sons came to Sunday's Busch Series race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez hoping to see a victory by Juan Pablo Montoya.

Mexico Fans
Alan Marler/HHPThe Juan Pablo Montoya victory was wildly popular with the Colombian driver's fans.

They got their wish as Montoya became the first Hispanic driver to win in one of NASCAR's top three series.

"The kids were really excited," Descombes said as Montoya did a victory burnout along the front straightaway. "They really enjoyed the race, and they were even happier to see their favorite driver win."

It was a feel-good day for most of the near-sellout crowd at this 2.5-mile road course. Most of the drivers and owners also felt good about NASCAR's third trip south of the border and the future of stock car racing in a country where open-wheel racing and soccer are king.

Federico Alaman, the director of sports events for race promoter OCESA, felt good because the series is expected to return to this city of 25 million again next season.

About the only person who didn't feel good was Scott Pruett, who left hotter than a Hot Tamale after his Colombian-born teammate wrecked him to take the lead with eight laps remaining.

Outside of having a Mexican driver win, NASCAR officials and race promoters couldn't have asked for anything more.

"We're thinking a solid future," Alaman said. "OCESA, we never, never get involved in a short-term project. What we find in NASCAR is a pretty solid partner, and we really feel we have a future in this market."

NASCAR brought the Busch Series to Mexico City three years ago with a dream of developing Mexican drivers and tapping into a Hispanic population that is the largest minority group in the United States.

The sanctioning body also signed a 10-year deal with OCESA to promote the NASCAR Mexico Corona Series that produced 2006 Busch East Series rookie of the year Ruben Pardo.

Although the 3,400-mile round trip for most teams might be inconvenient because of border security and more expensive than going to Kentucky or Nashville, team owners such as Jack Roush say it's worth it.

"We're opening up a frontier here," he said. "We're melting the societies a little more and sharing the sport activities that we hold dear in the United States and finding they're being well-accepted and enjoyed down here as well."

From a pure business point of view, Roush might make more money if this weekend were scheduled in Las Vegas.

Because there is no companion race, such as a Nextel Cup or Truck Series race, he had to use both of his 727s to fly in personnel instead of the one he might normally use for a Busch race.

NASCAR is looking into lessening that burden by considering building this event around a Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, making the trip to Mexico City much shorter.

"We've built a tour from nothing," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's vice president of racing operations. "That was our goal all along, to build a business in Mexico, build a fan base.

"I think we're seeing that."

This event drew 57,000 or more in the first two seasons and attendance, according to Alaman, was near that same number Sunday.

The excitement created by Montoya will generate more interest.

"This is going to give a lot of credibility for NASCAR in our country and also in Latin America," Alaman said. "It's going to be a real platform for Mexican drivers to make a real impact under the rules of NASCAR and have a better learning process when they have the opportunity to jump to the States in another series."

Some owners have said they lose money on the trip because of the distance and added money spent on security.

Felix Sabates, who co-owns Montoya's car with Chip Ganassi and was a major force in getting the series to Mexico City, disagreed. He noted that the purse ($2.5 million) is the second-largest in the series and that last place ($40,000-plus) pays more than most.

Lowe's Chevy
Alan Marler/HHPSponsors such as Lowe's certainly got major exposure in Mexico City.

He also said that hotels are cheaper and nicer, that most of the meals are free, and that transportation to and from the track is provided.

"Those owners are full of crap, excuse my language," Sabates said. "A lot of these owners are crybabies. They like to bitch about everything. They would bitch about Mother Teresa not being buried in the right place."

Roush said what NASCAR does to put on this race is unfathomable. He was so impressed that he paid a friendly visit to NASCAR President Mike Helton on Sunday.

"I'm sure Mike wanted to know why I was knocking on his door when I wasn't getting penalized for anything," Roush said with a laugh. "The question I had was: As difficult as this thing is for the promoters, the racetrack, the local and federal government, are they getting enough out of this to be happy with it?

"I hope they are. I feel it's a compliment that they want us to be here."

Roush, who owns a business in Mexico City, said his sponsors like the exposure they get here.

"I stop short of how they would compare being here in the same frame to say a race in New York City or another race in Las Vegas, which we don't have," he said. "I don't have an impression either way that they would consider this more important than one of those very vital venues."

Sabates looked around the garage at top sponsors such as Lowe's, Wrigley, Texaco and Home Depot.

"[The sponsors] would never come unless they could sell their products," he said. "We've got a lot of sponsors. They're all happy. We will be back here."

Robbie Weiss, NASCAR's international managing director, said the Mexican market is vital for the growth of NASCAR.

"If you went up to anybody in Mexico in 2004 and said 'NASCAR,' very few could tell you what that was," he said. "You say it today and they go, 'Oh, yeah! NASCAR.' "

Weiss added that the recognition some of the top Mexican drivers are getting today and the number of fans wearing the gear of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson -- to name a few -- in the stands is further evidence the sport is catching on.

"When you look at our international strategy, this is a hungry machine that requires a lot of food," Weiss said. "Look three to five years from now and see how the sport has changed. Have we brought in new fans? Have we brought in new drivers? Have we brought in new sponsors?

"Everybody will look back and say Mexico was important."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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