Friday, October 06, 2006
NASCAR betting Hispanic flavor flows into Cup with Montoya’s arrival
By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
NEWTON, Iowa — Only four days after his previously announced move from Formula One to NASCAR became official last week, and Juan Pablo Montoya seemed to have bitten off more than he could chew.
At the Okoboji Grill, across from Casey’s General Store, the Bogota, Colombia, native who has tamed some of the world’s most dangerous racetracks is tackling a slab of ribs — hold the sour cream and chives on the potato, please — and struggling. “It’s spicy,” he yelped, unable to quench the heat between gulps of a diet cola. “It’s burning my mouth!”
For someone accustomed to sampling sushi on the streets of Monte Carlo, the standard fare for a night out in this sleepy Midwestern town might be an acquired taste. NASCAR, though, is salivating over the foreign flavor Montoya, 31, will bring as the first driver to leave the highfalutin, worldly environs of F1 for a full-time ride in the Nextel Cup Series. Montoya will pilot the No. 42 Dodge in 2007 for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
Hopes are high Montoya will succeed where many have failed in making the difficult transition from the lighter open wheel to the heavier stock cars. Even if he doesn’t, his impact could be enormous on NASCAR, which has made a priority of diversifying its fan base and making inroads internationally to shed its lily-white roots.
Montoya, making his stock car debut in an ARCA race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on Friday, has amassed a large following in North America with a résumé that includes a dominant victory in the IRL’s 2000 Indianapolis 500, a title in the rival Champ Car World Series and seven F1 wins.
“He already has a great fan base in the Hispanic market, and 9% of NASCAR fans are Hispanic,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said of his organization’s research.
“There’s very encouraging signs both short and long term that Juan Pablo could have an impact. Short term, you’ll have more Hispanic fans tuning in and becoming fans. Long term, we'll have many wanting to get involved in the sport, and we want lots of drivers from lots of backgrounds. This is another good step.”
Public relations and marketing representatives from NASCAR and Ganassi will meet for a “Montoya summit” in the sport’s hub of Charlotte this month. On the docket is not only managing the exposure and hype surrounding Montoya’s arrival but how to assimilate a new wave of media his presence is expected to attract — Spanish-speaking TV networks such as Univision and Telemundo and Hispanic publications. (Univision and Telemundo could not be reached for comment.)
The team hasn't announced plans but has said Montoya will get a head start this year competing in NASCAR’s Busch Series and Nextel Cup. The final three races of 2006 for both are in three of the biggest Hispanic markets: Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix and Miami.
The Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19 sold out three months ago, but the track can add as many as 4,400 temporary seats. Track president Curtis Gray thinks an appearance by Montoya would fill many. Montoya attracted so many flag-waving Colombians to an Indy-car race at the track years ago, Gray said it resembled a World Cup soccer match.
“We have a whole marketing plan ready to go,” Gray said. “They’re going to come if he races.”
As the largest U.S. minority group (42.7 million), Hispanics represent one of NASCAR’s best hopes for growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics will number 102.6 million, or a quarter of the population, by 2050.
“Montoya plays right into the cards that NASCAR seems to be dealing with diversity,” said Jon Ackley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who teaches a class on NASCAR. “Attendance is down across the board, and I think NASCAR has plateaued a little. But if they’re able to diversify their fan base, they’ll be able to increase interest. I think they’re overjoyed Montoya is coming.”
So are many fans around the world. The Ganassi website last week began selling a specialized line of Montoya-themed gear and merchandise designed to appeal to “a worldwide fan base.”
When four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon chartered a boat for cruising around Europe shortly after Montoya’s announcement in July, the captain made a point of telling Gordon he would be watching him race Montoya next year.
“I’m hearing from people I have never known to be interested in NASCAR in any way,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be huge, and I wish him success. I want to see him have success.”
Finding a welcoming community
News of Montoya’s arrival has been greeted warmly by his new peers. When his Ganassi deal was announced at Chicagoland Speedway, Montoya got a deluxe garage tour from Jimmie Johnson. Dale Earnhardt Jr. invited Montoya last month to “Whiskey River,” a replica of a Wild West town that sits in the backyard of his Mooresville, N.C., mansion. “It was pretty wild,” Montoya said.
During a test last week at Iowa Speedway, retired champion Rusty Wallace leaned into Montoya’s cockpit and offered a tip that shaved a few tenths of a second off his lap time.
“It’s been amazing,” Montoya said. “Everyone has been ready to help.”
Johnson said his generosity is motivated as much by Montoya’s infectious personality as a desire for international credibility. “F1 fans, drivers and teams don’t have the respect they should for our sport. I hope this brings some.”
Wallace said: “He’s going to build a lot of friends with drivers because they all want him around. They really appreciate his talent.”
Montoya seemed to fit in immediately at the Iowa test, exchanging high-fives and smiles with new crewmembers. Brad Parrott, Montoya's crew chief, jokes that he tells people his team hired “JPM from Columbia” — as in South Carolina, not South America.
“Because he’s like a guy from Columbia, S.C.,” Parrott said. “He’s fun and full of himself, but he’s determined to do good. He’s said ‘thank you’ a lot more than a lot of drivers from F1 probably would. He’s a personable guy who likes guys around him who like to laugh.”
Camaraderie was missing in F1, a callous and cutthroat series where teammates easily can become enemies.
Montoya ruffled some with an aggressive, fearless style. Although he had offers to stay in F1, Montoya opted for NASCAR and a likely pay cut. The Chicago Tribune reported Montoya made $14 million in his final year with McLaren Mercedes. Top NASCAR drivers make about $5 million in base salary plus a percentage of winnings and merchandise sales.
NASCAR is “a more relaxed ambience,” said Montoya's father, Pablo. In F1, “Everyone is their own person. Nobody talks with anybody. It’s completely different here, and he needs that.”
Trading a jet-setting lifestyle of exotic F1 locales such as Malaysia, Montreal and Melbourne for NASCAR weekends in such places as Martinsville, Va., Darlington, S.C., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., doesn’t bother Montoya.
During the Iowa test, he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express in Newton adjacent to a square filled with sidewalk stores that seemed unchanged from the 1950s. It was a stark contrast to ultramodern F1, whose chic garages resemble trendy European sidewalk cafes with stainless-steel coffee makers and plates of smoked salmon at the ready.
“The culture here is not a big shock,” said Montoya, who lives in Miami with his wife and their two young children. “I’m more of an American anyway. Being in Europe, it was never like home. Every time we had holidays, we were in Miami.”
Steep curve to making the grade
When he drove Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during an exhibition three years ago, Montoya quickly learned the difference between a 1,600-pound F1 car and a 3,600-pound Cup car. The bulkier stock car was much less nimble and responsive in navigating the turns, forcing Montoya to make radical adjustments in how cautiously he pushed the car to its limits.
“I was braking at the 300-meter mark” before the corner, he said. “In F1, you brake on the 50-meter mark. (The change) was massive.”
More weight and skinnier tires make Cup vehicles a handful compared to the precision handling of an F1 or Indy car, which employs space-age technology to stay glued to the track at high speed.
The trade-off is passing is difficult, and contact causes crashes. NASCAR’s slam-bang nature is more appealing to Montoya. “In F1, the car is exciting, but the racing, I wouldn’t be so sure,” he said. “I wasn’t enjoying it, and I race because I love it. The racing here is so much more close and exciting.”
Others have tried. Several Indy-car winners, such as Christian Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Scott Pruett, Max Papis and Jimmy Vasser, dabbled in NASCAR with limited success (although none has Montoya’s credentials).
“Most drivers find it’s a lot harder to go lighter to heavier,” said Kyle Petty, whose team gave Fittipaldi a 15-race Cup stint in which the Brazilian finished no better than 24th. “If you do spins in a rental car in a parking lot and then you do it in a go-kart, you’ll say, ‘Wow, this is a lot better.’”
Petty said open-wheel drivers also are accustomed to getting quicker with each lap on the track. “Over here, the best lap is the first, and it’s all downhill,” he said. “They wait for it to get better, and it gets worse and worse.”
Car owner Ray Evernham said “sometimes the fastest way in Cup is to drive a little slower.” Evernham believes Montoya will excel “if he’s smart enough to know that he’s got to block out everything he’s ever learned and start over.”
Wallace said: “He’s got the right open mind that he wants to succeed. This is one of the best drivers, if not the best driver, in the entire world.”
The early returns have been promising. At Iowa, Montoya’s speed consistently improved over the course of an eight-hour session. “It’s like he’s been in the car a couple of years, not a couple of tests,” said John Fernandez, managing director at Ganassi. “I’m amazed how quickly he’s come up to speed. He’s not come in like, ‘I’m a great Formula One driver in a lesser series.’ He’s said, ‘I’ve got a big learning curve.’”
Montoya said: “Are we going to get the job done soon? No. It’s going to take time. I’m in it for the long haul.”