NASCAR’s last Mexico City 200? Or are Daytona sports execs simply regrouping and waiting for better economic weather? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)
NASCAR AND DIVERSITY: FOURTH IN A FIVE-PART SERIES ON NASCAR’S PUSH TO CHANGE THE FACE OF STOCK CAR RACING
(Part Five is below)
By Mike Mulhern
Robbie Weiss insists that NASCAR’s pullout from Mexico City, after a four-year run, isn’t a strategic withdrawal on that front of its Hispanic initiative program. But NASCAR’s International Director does strain to make the case that dropping the Mexico City 200 Nationwide event from the sport’s spring calendar is simply repositioning and reshaping the sport’s south-of-the-border game plan.
Instead of playing now in the world’s biggest Hispanic-speaking city, with its some 25 million, NASCAR is retrenching to the Mexican countryside, where its Corona-sponsored development series plays at 14-race tour.
Hard to put a good spin on that.
The bottom line here: NASCAR is dropping its annual race in Mexico City—one of the world’s biggest cities—and moving that race to Newton, Iowa (pop. 15,000), about 30 miles outside Des Moines (pop. 200,000).
Should Hispanics – NASCAR’s target audience, on both sides of the border, in its Mexico City promotion – consider this a slap in the face?
Is NASCAR thumbing its nose at Mexico City in taking its game to the cornfields of Iowa?
NASCAR says the move only makes good financial sense.
So is NASCAR racing simply too costly for Mexico City?
When NASCAR first charged into the Mexican capital in 2005, with the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, he of the TelMex empire, providing much of the push, there was much talk about this event becoming a signature event for NASCAR, an international race that could not only help redefine the Nationwide (then Busch) series more clearly but also give NASCAR a more international face…hopefully to be translated into more TV viewers around the world, particularly the Hispanic world.
But now, just as the sport was arriving in its second international venue, Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a few days ago, Daytona officials abruptly announced they were pulling the plug on Mexico City.
Just as NASCAR was really starting to get a solid foothold in the immense Mexico City market, it’s pulling out.
When the Montreal race was hit by heavy rains, NASCAR officials tried to get the event in by using eight-year-old rain tires, which proved a debacle, both for the sport as sport (NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain, and this was the textbook example of why) and for the sport’s international credentials.
NASCAR’s new Montreal venture (this was the sport’s second event in that city) isn’t just a Canadian sports launch but another major step in the sport’s expansion, this to a bi-lingual ‘international’ city. A run in Toronto would be one thing; a run in Montreal is quite another.
Of course the Montreal/Pocono double-header weekend basically was another example of NASCAR trying to jam too much into too short a time frame and of NASCAR’s difficulty in dealing with rain in general.
“Overall I thought Montreal went pretty good, thought the weather made a long day for the fans and the competitors,” Weiss says. “The competitors were able to be respectful of each other and get a feel for how the cars were going to react before they went racing.
“And once they did go racing, from what I’ve heard and read and seen in person, it was a pretty neat deal.
On a clear day, Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a gorgeous track, and right in the heart of the second-largest French-speaking city in the world. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“There are a lot of questions of whether we should have done that. But you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Joe Balash (the Nationwide tour director) and Robin Pemberton (NASCAR’s competition director) for the way they made the call and the way they went about it.
“You wish we hadn’t ‘lost’ the track, so we could have finished under the green-white-checker. But for what the racing we did see, it was pretty exciting, and some strong competitors battling it out.”
However all that ignores the fact that none of these drivers or teams had ever tested these cars in rain anywhere, an example of the basic problem with NASCAR’s rain-tire scenario, not to mention the fact that racing in the rain for these guys is simply downright dangerous at 160 mph.
And the fans? Didn’t they deserve better from NASCAR?
“It was a cold, hard rain, not a light summer drizzle, but the fans didn’t let it mar their day,” Weiss said. “The rain wasn’t going to stop their fun. Overall, for what happens when the weather turns on you, it was pretty good.”
However it certainly wasn’t NASCAR’s finest hour, and this in an international, well-promoted event. NASCAR didn’t have enough room in the weekend to handle the problems. NASCAR needed a better Montreal game plan.
“I might not know all the nuances, but our guys try to be sensitive to that when we put the schedule together and try not to put events on top of each, but it is a busy year for everybody,” Weiss said. “There is a delicate balance. And you learn something new every time something like this happens.”
Long-time NASCAR team owner Felix Sabates (C) was key in negotiations with Mexico City’s Carlos Slim Helu for the sport’s stop in one of the world’s biggest cities. Carlos Slim Helu, a telecom giant, is by some accounts the richest man in the world. And it’s unlikely NASCAR’s France family will let him slip away. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
And NASCAR’s bobbles in Montreal only accentuate questions about what just happened in Mexico City.
What went right and what went wrong with NASCAR’s Mexico City venture?
Why is NASCAR now bailing out: After drawing about 100,000 for its first running, NASCAR’s crowd was down to about half that for the most recent.
Once there was intense speculation about NASCAR raising the Mexico City event to a Cup tour event, and adding more major NASCAR events in key Mexico cities like Monterrey, where a Truck tour event was once apparently considered.
Why is NASCAR suddenly pulling the plug?
Is it simply giving up?
Is poor promotion to blame?
Michel Jourdain: One of Mexico’s biggest names in NASCAR racing, now with Toyota, after a stint with Ford (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)
With NASCAR as a preeminent sports marketing operation, and with Slim clearly not cash-short or savvy-short, and with the city itself boasting a population of some 23 million, the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere and second biggest in the world (behind Tokyo), how could NASCAR not find enough people to fill the really rather modest stands?
Was the Mexico City 200 simply poorly thought-out and designed?
Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, three of the four winners, may be hot sellers in Charlotte and Talladega and Richmond, but in Mexico City’s media they won’t ring any bells. And NASCAR refused to turn this event into any type of Cup affair, invitational or tour stop, so the 200 could easily be seen as a not-so-important stop on the sport’s Triple-A tour, rather than a world-class event: where was Jeff Gordon, where was Tony Stewart, where were the big NASCAR stars?
In fact only Robby Gordon has stature in the Mexican media and population, from his 20 years of running the Baja, but Gordon is usually on NASCAR’s bad-boy list rather the list of drivers-to-promote. Adrian Fernandez should have been NASCAR’s calling card, and in a sense he was, but a still questionable NASCAR call to penalize Fernandez – for ‘pitting too soon’ when a late yellow came out – while Fernandez was battling for the win….well, that may have been the call that all-but-doomed NASCAR in Mexico City. (Perhaps fortunately for race officials, that call and its significance didn’t really register with the fans or the Mexico City media.)
Fernandez clearly can hold his own in NASCAR, at least on road courses. And he has had backing not only from mega-owner Rick Hendrick but also big marketer Lowe’s.
But the gap between Fernandez and other good Mexican drivers has been significant. Even guys like Michel Jourdain have struggled in NASCAR.
Fernandez has long said that for NASCAR to succeed in Mexico, and in the Hispanic market, it will have to find a major Mexican driver….and it doesn’t seem to be a job he himself is interested in, though he’s only 42. Fernandez’ general lack of industry in all this cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps that could be Antonio Perez…or Rogelio Lopez…
Robbie Weiss (R), NASCAR’s international director, here with NASCAR president Mike Helton (Photo by Frederick M. Brown for NASCAR)
And then there is a major economic issue here too:
Most immediately perhaps: When NASCAR first went to Mexico City, it had Anheuser-Busch support, key in support of the planned ‘Corona Series,’ because AB has a 50-percent share in the company that makes Corona. AB has since dropped NASCAR’s Triple-A tour. Now Nationwide is the company sponsoring the Triple-A tour, and how much marketing impact that company can get out of a race in Mexico may be a significant issue here. (NASCAR, when AB pulled out, tried to sell marketing rights for the tour for a reported $30 million a year, however had to settle for Nationwide’s bid of about $12 million.)
And then many U.S. corporate executives outside the NASCAR sphere are continually stunned by the cost of sponsoring any NASCAR at any level. The costs of NASCAR racing in the U.S. have simply outgrown the supply of potential sponsors, and this over the past eight years without much real action by NASCAR to contain those costs – Ray Evernham says half a dozen Cup team owners this season have budgets around $30 million. Even running just a Truck team can cost from $3 million to $5 million a year.
So when drivers and car owners go into the Mexican economy and start looking for sponsors, they had a rude awakening….one that, however, should not have been unexpected. NASCAR itself, and Slim, should probably have done a better job of pre-packaging sponsorships for this Mexico City venture.
On top of that, top NASCAR American sponsors – particularly those without any significant economic or marketing ties in Mexico or with Hispanics in general – seemed rather apathetic about the Mexico City venture. A more comprehensive marketing package by NASCAR and Slim, again, might have provided better, and longer term, results.
A most striking point – if NASCAR is supposed to help sell cars, why weren’t Ford, General Motors, Dodge and Toyota pushed to bring more to bear on the point of attack? The ‘souvenir row’ at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was quite weak all the way around, compared to typical NASCAR tracks.
It might be too much to say that NASCAR simply showed up in Mexico City and expected its usual magic to work quickly, but maybe that was part of the problem.
So now NASCAR is just giving up?
Weiss puts a different spin on it:
“When we went down to Mexico City four years ago, we were looking at motorsports overall throughout Mexico, just as we were in Canada. We weren’t looking necessarily just to add events to our calendar. We’re pretty busy as it is, and that’s not really the direction either of these two initiatives were about.
“What went wrong? I think we should look at what is working and where we think our efforts are best placed.
“When we went down to Mexico we saw the country had a great heritage and history with racing but that somewhere along the way it had lost its way a little. Things were not as stable as they once had been, and while there were great regional series, the country had no national championship. A lot of series were fragmented.
“So when we stepped in with our partners down there, the opportunities that really excited us – that would have the most impact in Mexico and that would carry over to the U.S.—was the prospect of building a national Mexico championship.
“Once of the key challenges we faced was no one knew what NASCAR was. The brand just did not have any recognition. Unlike Canada, where NASCAR has had a long, strong, loyal history, from Richard Petty to Earl Ross.
“But south-of-the-border there was very limited awareness. So we felt what we needed to do to get a national championship off the ground was to make a lot of noise.
“So we brought the Nationwide series to Mexico City.
“We launched the championship, we launched the race, we worked to build the Corona series.”
The Corona series, which features $30,000 race cars similar to Late Models, plays in the cities of Puebla, Zacatecas, Monterrey, San Luis Potosi, Guadalajara, and new tracks in Aguascalientes, Queretaro, and Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas. The series finale is in Mexico City in late October at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
“As we looked at it this year, we asked is this really working for the industry, is this really working for Nationwide, is this a strategy we’re happy with,” Weiss says.
“We looked at the Corona series (launched and run for NASCAR by ex-driver Chad Little) and said we were really proud of where that series is at. We’ve got capacity crowds, solid car counts, competitive races, three new oval race tracks. When we launched we were racing primarily road course, and now it’s ovals. And what used to be our best track is now our worst track.
“So all the trends in that are going in the right direction.
“When we looked at the event (in Mexico City), we felt it was a good initiative, the event was exciting…but the effort, the time and energy and money that goes into that one event, versus what you could do with a 14-event schedule we felt that was a better place going forward.
“And then when you dig deeper and talk to people about how much money that one event takes out of the Mexican motorsports market…there is a finite amount of dollars to go around to support motorsports in Mexico, and we were taking a lot of that for that one weekend. So if we can get some of that money going into the Corona series…
“So it started to be really clear this is the right direction for us.
“So we probably would have felt pretty dejected if we’d failed—if we’d gone down there and just run four events and not launched that series and if we’d just closed up shop….
“But we’re really proud of that series. We still have considerable work to do. But that series – across all fronts: tracks, teams, fans, media —appears to be growing and it should have a very positive impact on not only the Mexican motorsports community but also in the United States.
“There are a number of things already happening in the U.S. with the Corona series:
“ The champion of that series has competed in the Toyota All-star championship (annually in Los Angeles).
“And we’re starting to see a number of young drivers, like Rubin Pardo, and German Quiroga, and the Chivas racing team (backed by the famous Mexican soccer club) competing at Watkins Glen, drivers who come up under the NASCAR system in Mexico, with our rules and equipment, starting to succeed in the U.S. And drivers will continue to rise up through that system.
“We’re also looking at some things with TV where we can see those races in the U.S.
“Over time we want to draw a connection with the fans here and the fans in Mexico and seeing that grow.”
NASCAR’s goal, Weiss says, continues to be to make NASCAR racing relevant in the Hispanic community.
“But rather than put all our eggs into one event in one city, we’re focusing on the Corona series racing in nine different cities throughout Mexico.
“However we need to do a better job as the industry to show people what we’re really doing down in Mexico. Get yourself on a plane and go down there and see just what we are doing.”
Agree? Disagree? Don’t just brood. Express yourself here, and make your voice heard clearly in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona and Charlotte and in NASCAR race shops throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
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