Race attracts wealth, glamor

Updated: May 20, 2004, 9:18 PM ET
Associated Press

MONTERREY, Mexico -- There is no shortage of excitement planned for this weekend's Champ Car Telmex Grand Prix.

A priest will bless the race track and wave the starter flag. World-record holding sprinter Ana Guevara, Mexico's most-popular female athlete, has signed up to sing the national anthem and fans who get tired of roaming the pits can take in a beauty pageant or hit concerts featuring some of Latin America's hottest bands.

In Mexico, auto racing is fast becoming a sport of the wealthy.

The most expensive tickets to the race are $180, and were the first to sell out. However, race organizers had to cut the price of general admission seats in half to $22 and still couldn't sell them all.

More than 200,000 fans attended three days of qualifying and racing last year.

"It's not just a race. It's a whole event,'' said Ignacio Gomez, works bought $100 tickets for himself and his three sons. "The people coming have many more options than only auto-sports. It's exciting.''

Of course, the fact that this mountain-flanked city located about two hours by car from the Texas border has more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Mexico could have something to do with the race's success.

"I attended last year's race in Monterrey, and it was the most exciting race I have seen, filled with families having fun,'' Champ Car president David Eidswick said.

The show business aspects surrounding Sunday's race is just another way to draw fans.

"We want this to be the biggest party in the state, and to do that we will offer our fans a family-oriented entertainment event,'' said Jorge Lozano, the race's director.

Eidswick, who took over the series this year, said Champ Car is looking to expand its fan base to South America by adding races in Brazil and Argentina.

Formerly CART, the Champ Car series had been struggling since the rival Indy Racing League began in 1996. At the end of last season, CART declared bankruptcy and it looked like the end of a series that began in 1979 and enjoyed considerable success through the 1980s and 1990s.

But a full field of 18 cars competed last month during the season-opening Long Beach Grand Prix in California. More than 70,000 fans attended that race, fueling optimism that this year could mark the beginning of the series' revival.

There are numerous Mexican drivers on the Champ Car circuit but perhaps the country's best-known racer, Adrian Fernandez, moved to the IRL before the start of the season.

Lozano acknowledged that Fernandez's absence may cause attendance in Monterrey to dip slightly this year. But he said he's betting fans will come to see the other Mexican drivers, including Michel Jourdain, Mario Dominguez, Rodolfo Lavin and Roberto Gonzalez, a Monterrey native.

"Adrian was key in bringing Champ Car to Mexico, and it's sad not to have him this year,'' Lozano said. "But Mexico is well represented, and I'm sure our drivers will put on a good show.''

Veronica Zuniga, a psychology student who drove three hours from Ciudad Victoria to see the race, said she was still willing to pay top-dollar to see her country's drivers.

"I want to check out the Mexican drivers,'' the 26-year-old said. "They are very cute.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press