Lost somewhat in the furor over tires at Indianapolis and the righteous indignation of fans, commentators and columnists the length and breadth of this fair land, was Monday’s announcement on the future of NASCAR Nationwide Series racing in Mexico. The news was that, after a few years of declining attendance, the second series would not be making the arduous trip south of the border in 2009 – ending a run of four consecutive years.
When NASCAR first ventured to Mexico in March 2005, 94,000 fans roared for the 43 racers from the packed stands of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – a 2.518-mile road course just outside Mexico City. The inaugural race was won by a margin of over six seconds by Martin Truex Jr., who would go on to take his second straight Busch Series title at the end of the season. In 2006, Denny Hamlin held off the hard-charging Boris Said to take in the checkers in the sophomore event. But the real fireworks came the following year in 2007, when Juan Pablo Montoya with eight laps to go shoved his teammate Scott Pruett out of the way for the lead, and ultimately the win, in an ultra-aggressive move the likes of which made the Colombian such a success. In 2008, in what has now proved to be the final Nationwide race at the track, Kyle Busch took the honors, but the crowd had noticeably dwindled by some 37,000 from the high-water mark in 2005.
The decline in attendance, only 57,000 attended this year, coupled with the logistical challenges and the related sponsor issues (some play well, some absolutely don’t) has led the governing body to announce that the Mexican adventure at the Nationwide Series level is over for now. But the experiment was not necessarily the failure the traditionalists would attest. Robbie Weiss, NASCAR’s vice president of broadcasting and the managing director of its international program, was quick to point out that the goal from the outset was to convert Mexico’s open-wheel fans into true aficionados of stock cars.
“When we talked about ways we’d go about that, we felt that building a national championship that was a full-time series made in Mexico, supported by Mexican drivers, Mexican teams, Mexican fans, Mexican media and Mexican sponsors was really what we envisioned we were looking to do,” Weiss said. “We knew at the time that, really, the NASCAR brand was nonexistent in the Mexico market and we were starting from scratch.”
It’s a viewpoint shared by Geoff Smith, President of Roush Fenway Racing who notes, “The race in Mexico City was part of NASCAR’s overall expansion into the southwest and in particular [was meant] to expose the sport more directly to the Hispanic community… I think it succeeded in that primary purpose.”
So the rationale for scratching the Mexican race and shifting focus to the NASCAR Corona Series makes sense. Investing in organic growth with Mexican drivers and races at tracks throughout the country – rather than the one big one bang approach – is much more likely to produce long-term results. And on the flip side, another American circuit will pick up an all-important race date. The word is the Iowa Speedway will be the lucky recipient, but it’s not hard to question the wisdom of the timing of the announcement. This is especially the case with this coming weekend’s scheduled trip north of the border to Canada and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Quebec. The 2.71-mile road course is set on picturesque, man-made, Notre-Dame Island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and is no stranger to top level motorsports, having hosted Formula 1 races since 1979. This year’s race, held in early June, was the 30th time the F1 circus has visited Montreal and the race is widely recognized as one of the most popular on the circuit.
The track was originally named the Île Notre-Dame Circuit after the island on which it sits, but following the untimely death of the brilliant F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve, the track was renamed as a tribute to the Canadian racing legend. This weekend, in honor of his father, Jacques Villeneuve will attempt to qualify for his first ever Nationwide race (he ran once at Talladega at the Cup level and seven times in the Craftsman Truck Series). Another proud Canadian and Quebec native, Patrick Carpentier, has even agreed to forego his Sprint Cup duties at Pocono to concentrate all his efforts on the famous old track in his homeland. To those of Canadian persuasion, the race is a big deal, no doubt. And after the shenanigans at the first race last year with Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon, officials will be hoping that the story this time round is not of disputed victory and black flags.
In early July, my wife and I took a trip up to Montreal, and one afternoon we hired bikes and cycled across to Notre-Dame Island to take a look at the track. When they’re not racing the general public has unfettered, free access and, albeit at an awful lot slower pace than the cars will traverse the circuit this weekend, we were able to cycle all the way round the track stopping along the way to pose for the requisite photos. While the setting is undeniably stunning, it did strike me that the track felt a little disheveled, in places, and in need of some love. Given our visit came a month after the F1 race and a month before the Nationwide Series arrived, I was surprised it didn’t feel more pristine, but maybe I was just seeing scheduled repairs. That said, it really is a fantastic venue that’s worth a visit whether they’re racing there or not. This weekend, given the strong tradition of support for NASCAR in Canada, the stands are likely to be packed in anticipation of NASCAR’s second trip to the circuit. It should be great to watch.
Oh and just by way of warning, the red and white slow-down strips on the hairpin turns work a little too well when you run over them on a bicycle. Don’t try that one at home, kids.