NASCAR's greatest need south of border: a full-time Mexican driver

4/19/2008 - NASCAR

MEXICO CITY -- Adrian Fernandez is one of Mexico's most popular sports figures, so he knows a thing or two about Mexican fans.

Fernandez will compete in the Corona Mexico 200 Sunday, but believes one thing is missing for NASCAR to garner widespread support in Mexico.

"It's great to have this race in Mexico City, but NASCAR needs a Mexican driver running full-time in Cup or the Nationwide Series," Fernandez said. "There are drivers that I feel have the talent, but haven't received the opportunity.

"That's what NASCAR needs for the Mexican people to really care about NASCAR. Mexicans are very proud people and they love their sports stars."

Fernandez is one of six Mexicans racing in the Nationwide event Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET), but none of them race regularly in NASCAR's top three series.

Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya won the Mexico City road race last year, which was popular with the crowd of 73,000. But Fernandez said Montoya's success in NASCAR doesn't help much with most Hispanic fans.

"I'm very close friends with Juan Pablo and he's done a great job in NASCAR," Fernandez said. "But Juan Pablo doesn't speak for the majority of Latinos in America. The vast majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are of Mexican decent. They want one of their own racing at the top level."

Robbie Weiss, the managing director of NASCAR International, said they are working hard to accomplish that goal through the NASCAR Corona Series, a developmental league in Mexico that is headed by former Cup driver Chad Little.

Weiss is amazed at how far the series has come in a short time.

"We launched the series to show our commitment to motorsports in Mexico," Weiss said. "It's a great developmental league, but this is a long-term project.

Mexican officials have worked with NASCAR in building the infrastructure to help the series progress.

"This year there will be three brand-new oval race tracks in Mexico that will play host to events in the series," Weiss said. "And two others opened last year in San Luis Potosi and Puebla. Building new facilities was critical to see this thing grow."

Most of the new tracks are three-quarter-mile ovals, but a few are 1-mile ovals. Weiss said the turnout for the Corona Series races has surprised everyone.

"One race last week, they sold out and had to turn 5,000 people away," he said. "It's phenomenal.

"When we came down to Mexico four years ago, this type of racing didn't exist here. We were literally starting from scratch. Four years later, we have transformed an open-wheel culture to a stock-car culture."

The hope of the Corona Series is to find a driver who can compete successfully in Sprint Cup.

That's a long way off, but one Mexican driver on the move is Antonio "Tono" Perez with Chivas Racing. Perez, who is competing in Sunday's event, is going to race in the Camping World Grand National Series later this year with Telmex as his sponsor.

"But he's not going to step into a Nationwide car full-time tomorrow," Weiss said. "They are going to do this right and allow him to develop.

"We want to get a driver who will be competitive for years to come. That requires finding someone who is young and has trained in stock cars on these tracks. It also requires finding a sponsor and a team that will back that driver."

Fernandez, 45 and a longtime open-wheel racer, was asked to do it a few years ago, but said it came too late for him.

Mexican drivers have competed in NASCAR in the past. Carlos Contreras raced several years in the Craftsman Truck Series with limited success.

Fernandez wants to see a young Mexican driver get an opportunity with a top team. He feels NASCAR would explode in popularity here if a Mexican became a contender in the Cup series.

"Adrian is right," Weiss said. "Better than 75 percent of the U.S. Spanish-speaking population is from Mexico. Having a consistent and competitive Mexican driver in one of NASCAR's top series would really help advance our goals."

This is the fourth year of the Nationwide race on the historic Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course. Will it continue?

"All our sanctioning agreements are done year-to-year," Weiss said. "But OSECA, the promoter for this event, also is our partner in the Corona Series. So we're not just dating. We're married and we have children.

"But this event looks pretty healthy from our perspective. The grandstands will be full Sunday and there's a lot of sponsorship activation."

Weiss sees the Corona Mexico 200 as a hybrid event for NASCAR.

"It's really more than a Nationwide race," he said. "It's an all-star event where some of the best road racers from various disciplines come to compete."

No Mexican has won it yet, but Weiss thinks it's only a matter of time.

"We're really still in our infancy of what we're trying to accomplish here," Weiss said. "Our No. 1 priority is the Corona Series because that's the breeding ground to find Mexican drivers who can compete successfully in NASCAR."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.