Tommy Thompson · Tuesday June 19, 2007
Despite the much-heralded full time entrance of Juan Pablo Montoya into the Nextel Cup ranks this season, his appearance has not drastically altered the demographics of NASCAR's fan base as one might think. Montoya, the Colombian-born, open-wheel ace, and past winner of the Indianapolis 500, is not delivering on NASCAR's desire that he would pique the interests of Hispanic-Americans in this country to attend and view stock car racing events en masse. There is no reason to hurry to the Ganassi No. 42 Texaco-Havoline souvenir trailer when trackside, as there has been no "run" on Montoya merchandise as previously predicted. There are still plenty of T-shirts, seat cushions, and ball caps with Montoya's number, likeness, signature, or some combination of the three available should the throngs of new followers, anticipated to be primarily descendants from Spanish-speaking countries, eventually materialize. But don’t hold your breath…in my view, they will never appear, and it is by no fault on Montoya's part. The harsh reality is he isn't Americanâ€¦and the audience numbers have shown Americans are partial to fellow Americans when watching sports.
When I use the word American, I mean it in the most all-inclusive manner with regard to race, religion, and gender that it can be used. U.S. sports enthusiasts are by-and-large blind to an athlete's background, but they are not so liberal in their preference that their sports heroes are from elsewhere other than the good old U.S. of A. It’s a fact that would behoove the sanctioning body of NASCAR, as well as team owners, to keep in mind for future reference. An infusion of a large number of foreign-born drivers, regardless of their ethnicity, would be sure to adversely affect gate receipts at the track and the number of viewers in this country watching races in their living rooms.
That is not to suggest that Montoya should not be allowed to compete, or that his longterm success is not good for the sport. His presence this season in the series has been met with a considerable amount of interest and curiosity due to his status as the first top international driver, measuring Cup racing’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with other forms of motorsports, and more specifically, Formula 1. His credentials as an accomplished driver in what has always been perceived as the ultimate auto racing series in the world is allowing NASCAR fans to use him as a yardstick in hopes that he will verify what they hope and believe to be the caseâ€¦that NASCAR drivers are as good, if not better than any race car drivers, anywhere.
In an article I wrote in October of last year, "Ethnic Diversity: Road To NASCAR's Future Growth":http://www.frontstretch.com/tthompson/5470/ I illustrated NASCAR's need to increase, in particular, Hispanic-American and African-American markets, and supported the sanctioning body’s proactive attempts through their Drive for Diversity programs to reach those goals. But Montoya's arrival just won't get NASCAR its desired results. Earlier this year, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said,
“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.”
Well, Poston was wrong, especially in his short term calculations. With the exception of a small contingency of Colombians wearing or waving their national flag at some events, very little else has changed in regard to the number of Hispanics attending Cup races.
Here’s a reason why: nationalism is very big in this country. We are not a nation that has a whole lot of interest in what is popular sportswise globally, and, in fact, seem to have an aversion to most sports not considered American…or at least those that American athletes excel at. The big three team sports in this country are football (college and professionalâ€¦in a big way), baseball (with declining popularity) and basketball. All three are distinctly American in origin and perception. Second among the most watched sports is auto racing, specifically NASCAR, with its distinct branding as American making it by far the most popular form of auto racing in the country. Not on that list, you might notice, are sports such as soccer, which happens to be the most popular team sport in the world. Hockey doesn’t show up, either, although it’s very popular with our Canadian neighbors to the north and throughout northern Europe. Oh, we have soccer and hockey, but not a lot of people are paying to see it. And it is no coincidence that both sports draw heavily on non-American athletes to fill their player rosters.
I remember when baseball WAS "America's pastime." Not so any longer. And though there are a number of issues that have contributed to its significant loss of supporters over the years, the rosters are now dominated with foreign-born players, many of whom are Hispanic. That is just not the kind of diversity that fans in this country want to see. In my youth, we did have a smattering of Latin players that were generally accepted. Players with surnames such as Alou, Cepeda, or Campaneras; but they were almost novelties and did not at that time threaten the overall perception of the sport as being an American sportâ€¦played by Americans. That is not the case today, and it doesn't appear that fans are too accepting of the change.
Though most seem reluctant to address the issue, American auto racing has experienced very much the same backlash and declining interest as baseball when it began the wholesale importing of international drivers into the top echelons of open-wheel racing in USAC, and then the practice continued and escalated with CART and the IRL. This fact, in my mind, has contributed as greatly to U.S. motorsports fans developing a general disinterest in open-wheel racing as much as the split between CART and the IRL in 1996. It is my firm belief that fans are much more apt to follow and support American drivers of the past with the last names such as Andretti, Foyt, Gurney, Jones or Rutherford then the foreign-born drivers of the sport. Though talented drivers, these non-American wheelmen such as Wheldon, de Ferran, Castroneves, Luyendyk or Villeneuve have never really captured the interest of racing enthusiasts in this country, no matter how successful they are in any series they’ve raced in.
In general, Americans, regardless of their race or heritage, identify themselves as Americans first. And thus, they will root for and support firstâ€¦ Americans. Not to say that an African-American would not be intrigued more so by a fellow African-American competing competitively in NASCAR. And the same can be said for Hispanic-Americans. But the operative word, and one that NASCAR needs to keep in mind, is American. It is in the sport’s best interest to maintain its present level of popularity and pursue an even larger and more diverse fan base into the sport to keep that simple thought in mind.
Juan Pablo Montoya cannot be the racing organization’s conduit for diversity. And in all fairness to Montoya, he has never claimed that he can. Montoya's reason for leaving Formula 1 racing for the world of stock cars was not to increase the Hispanic fan base for NASCAR, but as he has said, “I did this for myself because I think it is a great challenge.” And though his worldwide popularity will increase awareness of the sport to race fans around the world, it will do little to increase attendance at U.S. racetracks of new fans regardless of their race or heritage.
So, like the small Montoya contingency that show up at the track on race day draped in Colombian flags to show their affinity for the country of their origin, American's are equally passionate in wanting to watch and root for drivers that they feel represent their American heritage. Minorities are no less filled with that pride in this country than anyone else, and certainly, like all race fans, they will support an American driver that they best identify with. Right now, Montoya is not a driver that fits that criteria. Still, when the day comes, and I have every reason to believe it will, that a Hispanic-_American_ driver begins competing for wins in NASCAR's elite division, throngs of new stock car racing fans of Hispanic heritage will show up at that driver’s souvenir trailer eager to buy his or her ball caps and seat cushions.
Just not yet.
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