- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

NASCAR yesterday announced the latest step in its ever-broadening expansion program: a race in Mexico City next year, its first points event south of the U.S. border and a giant step away from its rural Southern roots.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing will hold the Busch Series race on March 6 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and offer a purse of $2 million, the largest on the Busch circuit — NASCAR’s equivalent of a minor league.

The race is a result of NASCAR’s growing popularity and its decade-long drive to expand into new markets within the United States, as well as in Mexico and Canada.

The organization operated successfully for decades in its own little corner of the world, mainly the southeastern United States, where promoters knew enough not to challenge college football on Saturday afternoons.

But the sport has hit high gear in the past 10 years, generating TV ratings better than those of any league other than the National Football League and drawing an average of more than 180,000 fans to each race.

The surge in popularity inspired a NASCAR program to expand to all corners of the United States and abroad — an effort that also threatens to leave the sport’s dirt-track roots in the rearview mirror.

NASCAR once held a combined 26 races in North Carolina and South Carolina each year. That number has been reduced over the years to three as NASCAR expanded its horizons and put races in far-flung places such as Fontana, Calif.; Fort Worth, Texas; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Chicago, and Kansas City, Kan. — all since 1997.

And where NASCAR once just looked south, it is now looking south of the border.

“The Hispanic community in the United States represents 40 million Americans, and in the next 10 years 50 percent of the growth in the U.S. population is going to come from that marketplace,” George Pyne, chief operating officer of NASCAR, said yesterday. “For NASCAR to grow in markets like Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix and Dallas, [we need to court] Hispanics, who make up a huge part of those marketplaces.

“So the opportunity to go to Mexico and develop a potential feeder system for Hispanic drivers … is a good thing. Taking the Busch Series to an international level is good, great for the teams and drivers.”

NASCAR launched a Mexico-based operation yesterday, NASCAR Mexico, to oversee marketing and licensing, increase interest in the sport and attract corporate support from companies based in Mexico and throughout North America.

NASCAR has explored expansion into Canada — officials visited the Champ Car race in Toronto this year and the Formula One event in Montreal — and have considered expanding to Europe.

Meanwhile, some of the tracks on which the sport grew up are gone or rapidly fading from the scene.

North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway long were venerated venues, but they have fallen victim to the NASCAR’s rapid growth.

“We just flat outgrew North Carolina,” said Andy Petree, a former crew chief who now operates a racing team. “Sponsors don’t want to be at Rockingham two times a year. They put up with it because it was part of the package, but they would much rather be in Los Angeles twice.”

Said Chris Browning, president of the now-shuttered Rockingham facility: “We’re a victim of our own sports success.”

Once only the premier events were televised nationally, but now the entire 36-race schedule plus three non-points events are seen across North America and in dozens of other countries.

The only parts of the United States now “underserved,” as NASCAR likes to say, are the Pacific Northwest and greater New York City. International Speedway Corp., NASCAR’s sister company, recently purchased nearly 700 acres of industrial land on Staten Island to develop a racetrack to serve the New York City area. A site in the Seattle area is under consideration for a track.

“If we never changed, we would still be racing on dirt tracks all around North Carolina and the Southeast,” said Richard Petty, the racing great who retired after winning 200 events, more than any other driver. “Eventually you have to move forward. We need to cover the country to allow our fans to see us. [Sponsors] like General Mills, Georgia-Pacific and even Nextel spend a lot of money. We need to allow them to market in different areas. The schedule needed to expand.”

NASCAR has done just that — and smartly, too.

“What they’ve done very well over the years is understood supply and demand,” said David Carter, a sports-industry consultant and lecturer at the University of Southern California. “They don’t go into markets if they don’t anticipate the demand will be there. One of the things we’ve found is the demand can be there one or two times a year to the tune of 100,000 attendees.”

The realignment is far from complete, and weather is the controlling factor. The NASCAR schedule now stretches from mid-February to mid-November, 38 racing weekends in all. Some venues will lose a date or two when Seattle and New York are added.

“If you add a new track in New York City, which will be critical for networks and sponsors, you don’t have an unlimited number of [racing dates],” Mr. Carter said. “So at some point you will continue to see NASCAR optimize where its races are held and not necessarily add more [dates].”

Brian France says NASCAR never will completely abandon its roots.

“Realignment is intended to be every year in terms of how we would look at what events are working [or] could work better in some places than others,” Mr. France said. “[But] the traditional events are a big thing for us.”

But Petty, like NASCAR, is mostly focused on the road ahead, not the one behind.

“We can still go to different places,” said Petty, his North Carolina drawl as much of a trademark as his sunglasses and beat-up straw hat with the feathers in front. “Cities like Seattle and New York City are big cities with a lot of fans. You’re always going to run into different challenges when you get into a new market, but that’s just part of the deal. It’s too important not to have the sport continue to grow.”

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