NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Should NASCAR Race Outside the U.S.?

The first commercial produced by Nextel to mark their arrival into NASCAR at the beginning of the 2004 season was a one minute long spot called “Anthem” featuring a rousing soundtrack and clips of racing action from the early days of racing on Daytona Beach right through to the then-present day. The ad was Nextel’s way of honoring the history and tradition of the Cup Series, as well as showing NASCAR fans they understood what they were taking on. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the voiceover that accompanies the ad:

You want to know about America?

It’s in the squeal of rubber, the scream of the engine and the roar of humanity, seeing one of its own triumph against the odds. It’s there in a last-lap duel. Joyous as victory lane, devastating as hitting the rail. Here, life lessons are learnt and man it’s as obvious as the number of the car in pole position.

It’s simple – NASCAR born in America.

The sentiment expressed is two-fold in that it pays homage to the competitiveness of the sport as well as honoring and celebrating the roots and tradition of the greatest racing series in the world. But since 2004, the All-American sport has become increasingly international. Toyota’s arrival in the Truck Series, then Cup and Nationwide, the first foreign manufacturer in the sport in 40 years, and a driver pool at Cup level that now includes a Colombian, a Scot and a French-Canadian are some of the changes. This weekend, the expansion continues as the Nationwide Series returns to Mexico for a fourth straight year. With the Cup Series enjoying a rare weekend off, the eyes of the racing public will be on the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – a storied road course in Mexico City. So it’s as appropriate a time as any to consider whether or not the quintessentially American sport should continue to sanction races outside of the US?

As is often the case, it’s best to start with the echoes of the past. Go all the way back to 1952, to the 18th race, and you’ll see it was held on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls at a track called Stamford Park in Ontario – the first time NASCAR had ever raced in another country. The flat half-mile dirt horse track hosted just one Cup race and Buddy Shuman won. It was the only victory in a 29-race, four-year Cup level career for Shuman, who perished tragically in a hotel fire in November 1955. It was another six years before NASCAR made a second sojourn north of the border. This time the race was held at the Canada Exposition Stadium, a third-of-a-mile oval. The 100-lap race was won by Lee Petty, but it’s also notable for being the first start for none other than Richard Petty just 16 days after his 21st birthday. The King finished 17th out of a field of 19 – his day ended by a crash after 55 laps.

It would be another 47 years before NASCAR ventured outside the borders of the United States. This time the focus was south rather than north with the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez picking up a slot on the Nationwide Schedule. The famed 2.518-mile road course has played host to a number of racing events including 15 Formula 1 races. In many ways it was a logical move. As then CoO of NASCAR, George Pyne, noted: “[This] is a long-term commitment to embrace Mexican fans throughout Mexico and the U.S. This is a great opportunity for NASCAR to connect with Mexican Motorsports fans as well as Mexican-Americans, who represent nearly 60% of an integral part of the U.S. Hispanic demographic.” Over the last 10 years NASCAR has grown exponentially and it is now broadcast in more than 150 countries and 23 different languages. Embracing this global audience is a given of modern business and Mexico was a great place to start.

In 2007, NASCAR added another “foreign” race to the schedule. Once again, they chose a famed F1 track – the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in picturesque Montreal. Located on Ile Notre-Dame, a man-made island in the St. Lawrence River, the 2.71-mile road course was named after the late Gilles Villeneuve (Jacques’s father) who died as a result of injuries sustained in a qualifying crash at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

It was another “safe” choice, in expansion terms, as Canada already had a strong base of public support as evidenced by those who travel to races in the northern United States, not to mention a history of support for racing (CASCAR). As Brian France noted: “We know that this event is going to expand the footprint of NASCAR.” Expand the footprint it certainly has.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not it’s a good thing for the sport. Well, from what we’ve seen so far in terms of attendance, quality of racing, media coverage and general interest levels, you’d have to say the four events have been a rousing success. In many ways, NASCAR made the softest of choices in taking races outside of the States. Mexico and Canada are relatively easy geographically and do not present the sort of logistical challenges racing in Europe or Asia would present. Two races on a 35-race schedule in countries that immediately border the U.S. is hardly an outlandish “foreign” schedule and it’s certainly not a betrayal of NASCAR’s past.

There’s no doubt it’s more of a logistical challenge for the cash-strapped Nationwide teams, not least in terms of paperwork, general immigration procedures and simply transporting all the equipment over the border. Mexico City is a long drive for the trusty hauler drivers, but at a shade under 2,000 miles from Charlotte, N.C., it’s still 400 miles less than the hike to California. Plus the purses compensate – the 2007 Mexico race had a total purse of $2.179 million, second only to Daytona at $2.258 million. The third-best purse was Montreal at $1.758 million. The next closest was Vegas at $1.35 million. The trips might be arduous, but the rewards can more than make up for it.

The real issue, though, is whether or not the expansion is at the expense of the roots of the sport. Are there tracks in the U.S. that are more deserving of a race date? Isn’t giving back to a domestic community a better option than expanding your borders internationally? Shouldn’t the race dates in Mexico and Canada go to stimulating the economy in the U.S. rather than promoting the sport overseas? Tough questions that can be answered on many levels and in multiple different ways and frankly I’m not sure I’m qualified.

Ultimately, the keys with any future expansion will be frequency and location. A gentle introduction of two foreign tracks in four years is not a sign that NASCAR is about to go F1 and race all over the world. While you never know what will happen in life and indeed in NASCAR, I think it’s fairly safe to say it will be a long time before we see a points-paying Sprint Cup race held away from the States. And I think it’s a cast iron certainty that you’ll never see NASCAR open up in Japan as the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland As did this year for Major League Baseball. There are no immediately obvious locations for NASCAR to stage another foreign race – no other markets crying out for a date. With the two races entrenched on the schedule, NASCAR can afford to play a waiting game and see what develops over the next few years. So should NASCAR race outside the U.S.? I’d say yes, but it’s a cautious one. There’s no sense trampling on tradition and rushing the situation. At the end of the day, NASCAR is and will always be “Born in America.”

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