TweetBowles-Eye : Montoya A Winner? Almirola's A Loser...And That Means NASCAR's Still Not Doing Enough For Diversity
Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday June 25, 2007
Two weeks after African-American phenom Lewis Hamilton won his first event, NASCAR finally fought back after Formula One landed the first blow in racing's diversity sweepstakes. It was quite a 1-2 combination; putting together some prepackaged talent with sponsorship shenanigans, the sport inadvertently punched the one person they couldn't afford to hit - themselves. Staggering from the blow of the mistakes made by their own participants, they ensured the strength of their own bad karma went straight to the heart of the eggs lying squarely pressed against their face.
Only time will tell if the sport can figure this out in enough time to recover.
It's a staggering take on the sport's current state of diversity, for in the glow of Sunday afternoon's scintillating victory by Juan Pablo Montoya at Infineon Raceway, it's easy to get caught up in the hype of the Colombian winning his first race on Nextel Cup's top level. No doubt, the win's impressive; it comes in just Montoya's 17th start in the series and puts him in a select group of drivers who've won a race with a yellow stripe still plastered to their back bumper. More importantly, the win cements the former open-wheeler as Nextel Cup's first major international star; Montoya's just the second foreign-born individual to win a Nextel Cup race in NASCAR's modern era, joining Canadian Earl Ross in that all-too-short a list. Unfortunately, Ross didn't last more than two years in the series - Montoya should be around for far longer than that.
"I think in a way it's going to be good for the whole NASCAR sport," Montoya said in his post-race press conference. "I think me winning today is going to bring a lot of attention the next few races. It's good for me, it's good for the whole team, I think it's good for the sport. I'm very proud to be part of it."
On the surface, that seems all fine and dandy. Of course, in many ways Montoya's presence can be nothing but a base to build from as far as diversity's concerned; but beyond that, the future impact of his career on the sport's diversity initiatives might not be that simple. Comparing the future success of Montoya and Hamilton is like comparing apples and oranges; and in terms of far-reaching impact, both are likely to produce different outcomes.
Hamilton is a 22-year-old proud product of homegrown talent, rising through the open wheel ranks and Formula One's own test driver development program to earn his stripes as his sport's brightest young star. Montoya, while working just as hard, is NASCAR's international version of the New York Yankees. Already developed with talents far beyond his years in open wheel, this sport, in the form of Chip Ganassi, lured the veteran over to the other side with the money and prestige. Putting together the bouquet of roses no one could refuse, they landed the 31-year-old in a new set of wheels while forcing him to all but skip the minor league system through which most stock car drivers cut their teeth. It was the perfect scenario that fell right into NASCAR's lap; here's a prepackaged driver capable of performing on the sport's top level, and they didn't have to spend a dime on development. In a flash, you had a man ready to rumble, and the sport’s diversity quota automatically took a major step up as a result.
Of course, when you do something like that, you're mortgaging your future for the gains of the present, and that's exactly what Montoya’s presence has done. He's not the product of a successful stock car program, just his own talent level at driving anything with four wheels; his transition to NASCAR allows his ultra-competitive nature to beat up a whole group of new drivers at their own game after years of being dominant in open wheel. NASCAR fans understand this, and it’s part of why Montoya hasn't been universally accepted among some of the longtime faithful. It has nothing to do with the color of his skin or his country of origin; it has to do with his attitude, for one, and with a talent level of unprecedented success that was accomplishedâ€¦well, somewhere else.
Just listen to Montoya's comments from Victory Lane.
"It’s huge," he said of his win, grasping the moment and squeezing all he could out of it. "It’s hard to say this is bigger than this or that. I would say right now it’s the biggest thing I’ve done. It’s unbelievable, actually. In open wheel, that was what I was meant to be winning in, and in stock cars, I wasn’t. To get our first win in our first year is huge."
Those comments, albeit a small glimpse of Montoya's soul, tell you everything about success and failure. Clearly, Montoya has done what most athletes don't dare to do; switch to another "position" within their sport and still succeed at a high level. In the end, though, Montoya's blood, sweat, and tears weren't cut in NASCARâ€¦they were cut somewhere else. To put down far-reaching impact, you must first place roots, and one win does not permanently settle those roots somewhere else.
Of course, at the same time Montoya's plant was busy growing, one of NASCAR's top teams had cracked the plant in half of one of their other major diversity stars.
Sitting in the Busch Series record book Aric Almirola will now be listed, the first Cuban-American to win a race at that level. Only problem is, he wasn't in the car when it happened; Denny Hamlin was. After helicopter problems prevented Hamlin from landing and starting the race in the No. 20 car, Almirola had been given the green light to drive instead, running a car he qualified on pole and taking it to the front for 44 of the first 59 laps of the race.
Those would be the only laps he'd run all night.
Dissatisfied with another driver in the car, sponsor Rockwell Automation met "as a group" with the No. 20 team and decided that Hamlin should finish the race. Based in Milwaukee, this was the main attraction for a longtime sponsor, and they couldn't bear to see some unknown win it in the face of all the money they're putting into someone else.
That left Almirola sneaking out of the track in a secret exit, frustrated and despondent while, in the meantime, Hamlin responded to the change to the tune of a Busch Series win.
Without starting the race, Hamlin’s win goes under Almirola's name…but it hardly registers under the his broken heart.
"I just want you to know that no one cares more for Aric and his future than we do," said No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs, holding court with the media in the shadows of Montoya's victory. "That is a huge deal for us. At the same time, Rockwell has been a great partner. They stepped up and filled the gap when no one was there to span that gap."
With that, the arduous topic of money came up. Money supposedly talented drivers should have at the tips of their fingers - but has mysteriously crumbled in NASCAR circles at the mere mention of words like "Cuban", "African-American" or "Japanese" being spoken in the name of driver development.
Still, Gibbs would not back down. Mother Teresa he wasn't, and he made it indirectly yet perfectly clear he wasn’t about to mortgage his future on a talented driver without monetary backing.
"In most of these Busch programs, the owners spend money out of their own pocket to make it work," he said. "You can’t do it just on sponsorship. So we’ve got to say that it’s partly an investment in our future. And if we get enough from a sponsor and get them to step up and they want to go with a young guyâ€¦if they invest a chunk in that and we invest a chunk in that, we can make it happen. But in order to do that, you’ve got to show people that you can win and you’ve got to show them you’re on top of your game.”
Apparently, Aric wasn't worth enough to show it on Saturday night.
“He had a great car, he practiced it and qualified it and I know it is frustrating for him," lamented Gibbs. "(But Busch sponsorship); it’s very hard to sell. Hard to sell."
So, instead of forcing a diversity sale, NASCAR's participants currently choose to buy it when it's convenient, both for their sponsors and for their publicity. It's an impressive short-term fix, that's for sure; Montoya's presence in Victory Lane can tell you that much.
In the end, though, that's clearly a recipe for long-term failure.
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