Mexico City. What is the first thing you think of when you envision the second largest populated city on the planet? After you get past pollution, corruption, and drug trafficking, you can chalk up NASCAR racing as well. This past weekend, the Nationwide Series made what has become their annual stop to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez circuit in Mexico’s capital city. NASCAR has made great strides in recent years to gain favor with the Latin American demographic; races in Southern California, Miami, and the trip south of the border are evidence of this. But to date, Mexico City in particular remains their top initiative to draw Central and South American fans into the sport in droves, adding to a fanbase that was once in need of replenishing. But while the concept is nice, and fans were relieved to have some sort of racing to watch on Sunday, it is questionable whether or not the race needed to be taking place over 1,500 miles south of the previous week’s locale in Phoenix, Ariz.
It is a bit of an understatement to say that the last couple of events have been hard on the Nationwide teams logistically. Having to make the long haul out to Phoenix is hard enough; but then, having to turn south and head to Mexico does little to offer any relief, particularly to the smaller organizations. Roush Fenway Racing is probably better equipped to deal with this challenge as opposed to, say, the Baker-Curb Racing operation; and how teams like Johnny Davis Motorsports get it done, I have no idea. When you factor in the complexity of having to sort out both an oval-track and a road-course car, coupled with the burdens of hauling racecars all over North America, and the question arises: Is it really even worth it?
To begin with, there is more than a little irony that the premier racing series in the United States shipped an open date to Mexico. Why not? All of the automakers that compete in the series (save for Toyota…) have shipped jobs and manufacturing bases south of the border. If you have a Chrysler vehicle, chances are the transmission was made in Mexico. The Fusion which Ford campaigns in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series is manufactured in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. And General Motors enjoys the kind of reception to its vehicles only beyond the borders of the United States; it’s the type of trust manufacturers like Honda and Toyota already enjoy here.
But there are also plenty of tracks in the United States that could have hosted a race this past weekend. One that comes to mind immediately that was always a fan and driver favorite alike is North Carolina Speedway – aka, “The Rock.” Rockingham has been off the NASCAR docket since 2004, which has long been a sore spot for many longtime followers of the sport (although the track returns with a 500-kilometer ARCA race on Sunday, May 4th). The rationalization for dropping that track was attendance; a 1-mile oval can only sit so many people comfortably and, being an older facility, the turnout was often less than stellar. Part of that could have been attributed to the fact that as rabid as NASCAR fans are, having to show up with a stocking cap and a North Face is not the preferred way to spend a weekend in February or November. In late April in North Carolina, the weather is quite nice; in fact, it was a balmy 75 degrees this past Sunday. But NASCAR never got the track’s spring race date the benefit of that warmer thaw.
As an added bonus, there’s a better than average chance that you would not be kidnapped and held for ransom in south-central North Carolina; but the same cannot be said for Mexico City. The metropolitan area averages over 3,000 kidnappings a year, second only to Colombia in annual figures. The following are excerpts taken directly from the U.S. State Department’s website:
“Robbery and assault on passengers in taxis are frequent and violent in Mexico City, with passengers subjected to beating, shooting, and sexual assault. U.S. citizens visiting Mexico City should avoid taking any taxi not summoned by telephone or contacted in advance.”
“U.S. citizens should be very cautious in general when using ATMs in Mexico. If an ATM must be used, it should be accessed only during the business day at large protected facilities (preferably inside commercial establishments, rather than at glass-enclosed, highly visible ATMs on streets).”
“Mexican authorities have failed to prosecute numerous crimes committed against U.S. citizens, including murder and kidnapping. Local police forces suffer from a lack of funds and training, and the judicial system is weak, overworked and inefficient. Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know there is little chance they will be caught and punished.”
Forget tipping 40 ounces of Budweiser in the infield with your buddies; it looks like based on those warnings, you need to pack a .40 caliber SIG-Sauer in your waistband. With NASCAR’s penchant for competing outside of the country as of late, it is only a matter of time before Fallujah is ready to petition for a date, or a sponsor is sought for the Beirut 300.
To be fair to Mexico City, there is no doubt that people in the past at least turned out to watch the race. That’s more than what can be said for fans in Southern California at the track that received a second date, the hallowed Labor Day event at Darlington that was unceremoniously ripped out of South Carolina. But even that Mexico City attendance appears to be in flux; the stands Sunday were far from full, as they have been in previous years. At least the fans were as fanatical about their support of their home-country drivers as anything you’ve seen at Talladega for a certain red Chevrolet in years past.
The purse is actually not insulting, either. Showing up for this one event, Max Papis earned $49,343 for a 15th-place finish. To put that into perspective, a week earlier in Phoenix, series regular Mike Wallace finished 15th and brought home less than $24,000 for his efforts. Denny Hamlin, a name Sprint Cup driver, won a little over $40,000 in the same event for finishing third. Considering that 60% of winnings typically go back to the team, running mediocre in Mexico is more lucrative then running well in the United States.
No, that is not a Dollar/Peso exchange rate thing, either.
Perhaps the reason why NASCAR is competing in places other than the United States is due to the car manufacturers themselves. Take General Motors, for example. The world’s largest auto manufacturer (for now) recently released sales data for the first quarter of 2008. All-time sales records were set in Argentina, Egypt and North Africa, while quarterly records were posted in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. However, a cursory examination will reveal that most of those countries are closer to Mexico City than they are Mooresville; and General Motors’s sales are up in virtually every market, except for one: The United States.
So, as much as NASCAR wants to gain market share and fans wherever and however it can, automakers are no different. General Motors is projected to post a $1.6 billion profit in the aforementioned regions, which compares more favorably to the $4.7 billion it looks to lose in the rest of North America. But NASCAR’s presence with the majority of the entrants being American machinery, which are very popular among Latin American consumers, may be one of the more compelling reasons that the circuit competes there as opposed to other tracks that most fans would deem more deserving. I actually enjoy road courses, and wouldn’t mind seeing more of them added to the schedule.
I do not believe, however, that this is a rule that needs to be added to the Cup Series, and definitely not at this point in time; particularly with a track located in the sand hills of North Carolina that is just sitting there, begging to be used, Mexico City’s capacities would best be served elsewhere.
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