Going South is a win-win for NASCAR

Updated: March 6, 2005, 7:55 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

There are three off weekends during the 36-race Nextel Cup season -- a season that spans more than nine months -- and one of those rare times off is coming this weekend.

But for Cup drivers such as Jamie McMurray, Robby Gordon, Elliott Sadler and Kevin Harvick, they will give up the break to go racing. In Mexico City of all places. In a points-paying NASCAR race to boot.

Yes, they are just a few of the drivers to join the Busch Series field for Sunday's inaugural Telcel Motorola Mexico 200 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. The race is NASCAR's boldest initiative yet, as the sanctioning body attempts to attract new audiences.

While some may consider the event crazy -- after all, NASCAR has only held one points-paying race outside of the United States and that was in Canada on a dirt track in 1952 -- it's a no-lose proposition for the sanctioning body. It hopes that if the race is a huge success, new fans of Hispanic descent will follow the sport on a regular basis.

If that isn't the case, the race will still have brought extra attention to the Busch Series on a weekend when it was the only national NASCAR series running. And with Fox televising the show, the series will be in the limelight, especially with popular Mexican drivers Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr. in the field.

The crowd should be at least 60,000 (some say it will be much higher), and many will be there to cheer for Fernandez, Jourdain and the eight other native sons trying to make the field.

Others will be there to see NASCAR's regulars, such as McMurray and Gordon. McMurray's Cup team from Chip Ganassi Racing will be preparing his car for the weekend.

"I'm as excited to go to Mexico as I have been for any race. I really enjoy going to the road courses, and we've got a great car," McMurray said. "I'm pretty sure the entire crew is going down there. They went in and told the guys they didn't have to go, but they gave my team first choice. I think every single one of them signed up to go. It's going to be a lot of fun for us. It won't be as stressful as a typical race weekend, and it's going to be fun."

While security will be extremely tight for the NASCAR contingent, McMurray said he doesn't plan on venturing out on his own, pointing out that he doesn't do that much in this country, either. When he goes to a town to race, he says that's always his sole focus.

Still, he realizes the event could prove to be an awakening on some levels.

"I've only raced outside the country once, and that was in Russia," McMurray said. "I raced go-karts there in 1989, and when I came home, it made me think differently about my life."

One driver who isn't going -- Tony Stewart -- said he didn't feel like racing where so much security was required just to escort haulers and teams into the track.

Gordon knows things will be different, but since he's been going to Mexico for 20 years, he had a grasp of what to expect and wasn't so worried.

"I've always enjoyed myself every time I've been there," Gordon said of Mexico. "The key is keeping it all in perspective in knowing where you are and what your consequences may be. I've had friends of mine who have gotten in trouble in Mexico before. You don't want to get into trouble down there.

"The rules are still the rules. They still have speed limits. When you have a language barrier like we do of being U.S. citizens and not speaking fluent Spanish, that can be a big issue. I think Mexico City is a lot different than being in Baja, but for 20 years I've never had an issue down there."

The big question is whether Fernandez, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, and Jourdain, who is driving the full schedule for ppc Racing, can compete with the sport's regulars.

They're quite familiar with the track from open-wheel racing, but neither has any real stock car experience on a road course.

"I don't know how much NASCAR-style experience these guys have," Gordon said. "When you go to off-road tracks like Watkins Glen and Infineon [Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.], guys like Boris Said come in and are very competitive. They're racing sedan-style cars, which are pretty similar to NASCAR. So as far as the Spanish or Mexican contingent that is going to be down there racing, I'm not 100 percent aware of their experience. I know Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr. and hopefully they are competitive. It would be good for the show if one of those guys could challenge for the win."

Fernandez owns an open-wheel team, but isn't driving in the IndyCar Series this year due to a lack of sponsorship. So the chance to try a NASCAR race for one of the sport's top teams was an opportunity he couldn't refuse.

His lone taste of NASCAR-style racing was when he ran the International Race of Champions in 1999. His test session in the Hendrick Chevrolet was an eye-opening experience.

"I was surprised about the power that [the stock cars] have. I thought they were going to be slower than the speed they are doing," Fernandez said. "Definitely one of the things that is crucial is the brakes. The brakes are something that everyone told me, 'The cars are heavy. It's hard to stop the car.' It's a big difference compared to what I'm used to driving."

That means Fernandez has to change how he approaches every aspect of the course.

"In these cars, everything reacts very slow [because of the car's weight]. You have to think slow here, because everything happens slow," Fernandez said. "You have to get used to the roll of the car, which I'm not used to. Our cars, they really don't roll. These cars, they roll.

"If you want to get into a corner, at the apex, you really have to think ahead and turn earlier. If you think about it in our cars, you're too late already. The more laps I do, the more comfortable I'm getting. The more I know when to push, when not to push, how to take care of the tires and stuff like that. The key thing is just to be consistent and not make mistakes."

Crew chief Jim Long said the team has tried practicing pit stops with Fernandez, because pitting a stock car is far different from pitting an open-wheel machine. Outside of that, he's been impressed with how easily Fernandez has adapted.

"It went really well. I was amazed at how quickly he figured out how to drive a stock car around a road course," said Long, who took Fernandez to Virginia International Raceway for a test. "By the end of the day, he was up to the point that I think he'd give most of the Cup road racers a run for their money. He was one of the smoothest I've seen in a long time, in terms of how he worked his way up through the gears and handled the turns. It was amazing to watch."

Jourdain isn't resting easy due to the idea of a home-track advantage; he pointed out that his fellow Mexicans also know their way around the track. Not only that, he says a number of the drivers have driven the track in cars much more akin to Busch Series cars.

"Even Adrian [Fernandez] has already tested, and I've never driven one of these cars on a road course, and all of these Mexican drivers have been racing these types of cars for the last couple of years," Jourdain said. "A lot of Cup guys are going down there, and guys like Boris Said, who is a road-course specialist, so it's going to be as hard or even harder to make the race. But, I think I can do it. I feel comfortable with the track and I'm sure the guys feel good about the car we're bringing down, so I feel good about it." Just like NASCAR executives are entering the weekend feeling good about their latest grand experiment.

"Mexico has a long tradition in motorsports, and we are thrilled that NASCAR is now a part of it," NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France said. "This event provides our NASCAR Busch Series teams the opportunity to perform on an international stage. We look forward to providing this event for our growing Mexican fan base."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.