Nascar Busch series driver Jeff Burton leaves the pits as he test a car on Hermanos Rodriguez race track in this Jan. 12, 2005 photo, in Mexico City, during the promotion of Nascar Busch series. The good ol' boys are heading south of the border, hoping to tap into a huge market of racing fans. NASCAR's decision to hold a Busch Series race in Mexico drew a wide range of reactions, from Richard Petty calling it a natural move to Tony Stewart saying he has no desire to take his car to a new land.
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
The good ol' boys have already broken free of their Southern roots. Now, they're eyeing a potentially booming market south of the border.
NASCAR will take its second-tier Busch Series to Mexico this weekend, the first time such a prominent points race has been held outside the United States and perhaps the precursor to going international with the Nextel Cup drivers.
While NASCAR has no immediate plans to hold a Cup race beyond U.S. borders, there's little doubt that Sunday's event at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course will be an important step in determining the popularity of stock cars in racing-crazy Mexico.
No less an authority than the King, seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty, calls the Mexican experiment a natural progression in NASCAR's roadmap for future growth.
''That's a new segment of fans that we've really not tried to tap into,'' Petty said. ''If we can get a percentage of them interested in our kind of racing, it's worth going out and trying to get them.''
About a half-dozen Cup regulars have entered the Mexican race it's a rare off week for the Nextel series but Tony Stewart won't be among them. He's wary of traveling to a still-developing nation.
''Anywhere you go where they've got to get the Federales or the police or whatever they are to escort your rigs to the track, that's not somewhere where I want to race,'' Stewart said.
Robby Gordon, who will race at 2.786-mile road course, isn't concerned about his safety.
''I've been going to Mexico for 20 years, and I've always enjoyed myself every time I've been there,'' he said. ''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.''
Mexicans already have demonstrated their passion for open-wheel racing, evidenced by the massive crowds that turned out for the struggling Champ Car series.
Will stock car racing have the same hold on the populace? Mexico City native Michel Jourdain Jr. believes it will.
''I'm sure it's going to be huge,'' said Jourdain, a former open-wheel driver who switched to the Busch Series this year. ''NASCAR is so big in the States, and the press has been following it in Mexico the last couple of years more and more.''
Adrian Fernandez, the best-known racer in Mexico, has a special one-race deal with Hendrick Motorsports for the historic event. His open-wheel driving career is on hold because of sponsorship problems, though he still runs a team in the Indy Racing League.
''I feel like a kid again,'' the 41-year-old Fernandez said. ''It's a dream come true.''
Team owner Felix Sabates, a Cuban native, and his brother, Jose, first proposed the idea of racing in Mexico City. At first, NASCAR officials weren't too interested. But the brothers stuck with it, convincing CEO Brian France and chairman Mike Helton to visit the track.
''After they saw what was down there, they got excited about it. It's a terrific facility,'' Sabates said.
The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez opened in 1963 as a stop on the globe-hopping Formula One series. After a decade of inactivity, it underwent a $30 million renovation to host a CART (now Champ Car) race in 2002.
The following year, CART drew more than 400,000 for its three-day weekend, including an astonishing turnout of 221,000 on race day. NASCAR isn't likely to attract those sort of crowds, with its Web site predicting a turnout of 60,000 for the 200-mile race.
Sabates is expecting much larger crowds. He said at least 125,000 tickets have been sold and predicted up to 300,000 for the entire weekend.
Eight other Mexican drivers also will attempt to qualify, providing some local flare to the American-dominated sport. Still, Fernandez conceded that it's going to take some time for his countrymen to learn the nuances of NASCAR.
''This is a little bit of a new chapter for Mexico,'' he said. ''But I think that having me and other Mexican racers there is going to make this transition a lot faster.''
Gordon is eager to see how the Mexican drivers will fare against their American counterparts.
''I'm not 100 percent aware of their experience,'' he said. ''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.''
NASCAR has its roots in the American South, a once-regional sport that allowed ex-moonshiners a chance to show off their driving skills on dusty short tracks.
Clearly, that image no longer applies in the multibillion dollar phenomenon that is today's Cup series. Races are held from California to New Hampshire. Television ratings are second only to the NFL.
Petty still sees plenty of room for growth in this country, which is why he doesn't expect an international Cup race in the foreseeable future. But he can see some of the same factors at work in Mexico that helped make new tracks such as Chicago and Kansas City an instant success.
''We're not just a Southeastern sport with Southeastern sponsors,'' Petty said. ''That's what pre-sold us when we went to Chicago and Kansas City. They already knew something about us when we got there.''
Now, with the huge influx of Hispanics into the United States they have surpassed blacks as the largest minority NASCAR has some of the same built-in advantages south of the border.
''There's so many Mexicans going back and forth between the two countries,'' Petty said. ''That's not a bad public-relations deals for NASCAR.''
Lowe's, the home-improvement chain which is sponsoring Fernandez's car in Sunday's race, is clearly interested in the enormous buying power of the Hispanic population.
''Texas that part of the United States is a big market, not only in terms of American citizens but a lot of the across-the-border activity that happens with consumers,'' said Bob Gfeller, the senior vice of marketing and advertising. ''We're always looking for opportunity, and the question is just when.''
Who knows? Maybe ''Pilotos, enciendan sus motores'' will someday be as commonplace as ''Drivers, start your engines.''
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