Mexico City — NASCAR, the stock car racing league born in Dixie, is looking even farther south to diversify its fan base.
Today it will stage the Telcel Motorola Mexico 200, the league's first major event in this country. And unlike some of NASCAR's past foreign exhibition races, this one counts.
Millions of die-hard U.S. fans will tune in to the Busch Series race to watch veterans such as Rusty Wallace vie for the $2.3-million total purse and crucial championship points in Mexico City. Mexicans will be riveted by Champ Car standout Adrian Fernandez, the country's most popular race car driver, who will be piloting a stock car in competition for the first time. As many as nine Mexican drivers could be in the field, a bid by NASCAR to cultivate new enthusiasts here.
It's all part of a push by the league -- formally the National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing -- to broaden its audience, which is overwhelmingly white and American. NASCAR, widely followed in the United States, boasts 75 million fans and trails only the National Football League in sports television ratings.
Fast-changing demographics in the United States have NASCAR executives seeking to put more minorities behind the wheel, in the stands and in front of the TV set. NASCAR also wants a bigger international following, and it has seized on Mexico as a market where it can pursue both strategies at once.
Mexico, with a population topping 100 million, boasts a rich tradition of motor sports and a taste for American culture. Meanwhile, NASCAR sponsors are eager to reach the 40 million Latinos living in the United States, a majority of whom are of Mexican descent. To do so, they need bankable Latino stars capable of competing at the highest level in a sport in which fans have an almost cult-like devotion for their favorite drivers.
"It's the drivers that really sell the sport," said Dennis Bickmeier, spokesman for the California Speedway in Fontana, adding that Latino attendance soars whenever racers such as Fernandez come to town. "If there was a Latin star in NASCAR, no question, we could really move some tickets."
Whether the league risks alienating its core fan base by tinkering with its all-American image remains to be seen. Some fan message boards have criticized the moves to diversify and internationalize the sport as a politically correct sellout that amounts to fixing something that isn't broken.
NASCAR executives say they need to build for the future while the sport is riding high.
"The best time to go to the bank is when you have money in it," said Robbie Weiss, who heads NASCAR's international expansion efforts. "The sport is healthy, and we want to keep it that way."
NASCAR is the governing body that stages races and makes the rules for 11 regional and national stock car racing divisions featuring souped-up versions of pickup trucks and passenger cars.
Drivers compete for prize money and performance points in a series of races, with the goal of racking up the highest season tally to win their division championship. NASCAR's top national circuits are the Craftsman Truck Series, the Busch Series and the most prestigious of them all, the Nextel Cup Series.
Once the pastime of weekend speed demons in the Deep South, NASCAR has morphed into a high-powered marketing machine with fans in every corner of the United States. In 2001, it began a six-year, $2.4-billion TV contract with News Corp.'s Fox and FX and a joint venture of General Electric Co.'s NBC and Time Warner Inc.'s TNT. More than 1,100 companies participate as sponsors, including 102 of the Fortune 500. Wireless firm Nextel Communications Inc. reportedly is paying as much as $750 million for a 10-year contract to associate its name with NASCAR's premier racing series.
Viewership is up strongly, from an average of 5.7 million per Nextel Cup race in 2000 to more than 8 million last year, NASCAR says. In addition, the sport is broadcast in 151 countries and 23 languages.
But minorities have been lagging, both as spectators and participants. NASCAR estimates that about 17.5% of its fan base consists of blacks and Latinos, a number it would like to boost much higher. Minority drivers, owners and pit crew members are rarities.
Pressured by civil rights groups as well as sponsors seeking a broader market, NASCAR is attempting to add some color to a largely white sport. The group last year tapped L.A.-based basketball legend turned businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson to co-chair its diversity committee and to develop an urban marketing strategy.
NASCAR also has launched a driver development program to nurture budding minority talent, such as Chase Austin, an African American. The Kansas teenager recently signed with North Carolina-based Hendrick Motorsports, whose stable of drivers includes superstar Jeff Gordon.
To find Latinos capable of tearing up Talladega SuperSpeedway, the league is starting to look south of the border.