A lot on the line for German Quiroga Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway....and maybe for NASCAR too (Photo: OCESA)
By Mike Mulhern
Now 'NASCAR-International' is something of an odd duck, with a lot of potential, particularly sponsorship potential, and yet the sport's bosses have turned a bit conservative, and reticent to get too far out front on things.
And certainly there are still parts of the U.S. where NASCAR could stand to shore up its presence. Like New York City and Los Angeles….
Plus the world economy is in the doldrums. Maybe not a great moment to push the envelope.
Then again, with big international companies like Ford, General Motors, Dodge and Toyota, and Home Depot, Caterpillar, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, FedEx, UPS, Red Bull and others major Sprint Cup tour sponsors, there is a lot that NASCAR and its teams could leverage on the international front.
Why NASCAR doesn't push 'International' more strongly has long been a question.
At the moment NASCAR International is all about Canada and Mexico…and more about grassroots stuff than sexy headline events like that Mexico City 200.
-- NASCAR is still negotiating for a 2012 Nationwide return to Montreal, where crowds have been enthusiastic during NASCAR's five-year run at that heart-of-downtown F1 track.
-- And down South-of-the-border, where NASCAR runs the still fledgling Mexico/Corona tour, German Quiroga says things are picking up steam, with 36-car fields this season. "And the last two or three races the gap in qualifying, from first to last, is only about eight-tenths of a second on short-tracks."
German Quiroga is up here from hometown Mexico City for the weekend, and nobody has more on the line in Saturday afternoon's in Saturday afternoon's 185-mile Truck race here than he does….except maybe team owner Kyle Busch.
A Corona tour veteran, and two-time champion, Quiroga (key-RO-ga) is making his NASCAR Truck debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and he's got a Kyle Busch Truck. Busch of course has dominated the Truck series for several years now, so Quiroga has race-winning equipment.
German Quiroga (2nd from L), with NASCAR's Mexico/Corona series championship trophy. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Quiroga, a slim, intense, but careful and studious Jeff Gordon-type driver, just turned 31. He may be one of the best all-around drivers yet to come out NASCAR's Mexico/Corona series. And he's personable and polished.
He's won two straight Corona titles, and he's aiming at a third straight – he's got a 110-point lead going into the final four Mexico tour events. Quiroga has won 15 times on the Mexico tour, most recently Sept. 4th at Querétaro.
Now is he ready for these big leagues? Hey, these Truckers play rough.
"This is a great opportunity for me, one we've been fighting for for many years…and I don't want to mess up," Quiroga says carefully.
"Personally I'm looking for a top-five Saturday, but if we get a top-10 that would be a great finish for us.
"This is a great step up the ladder. We've got good stuff, and we want to show it. We have to do well this weekend…and we're learning a lot. I've never been in a Truck in my life. It's getting better, getting more comfortable; I'm learning the limits of the Truck.
"I know I need more laps, but Rick is helping."
That's Rick Ren, who is handling the Quiroga project. The veteran NASCAR crew chief spent years with Ron Hornaday, so Ren should be just the man to keep Quiroga well aware of just how hard-driving these NASCAR Truckers really play this game.
Will Quiroga be able to protect himself out there? He just laughs: "I protect myself very well. Racing in Mexico isn't that easy; most of the guys aren't that young, and they don't want the young guys to win.
"So what I've learned is that in NASCAR you have to be patient. The races are long, and you can't do all your racing in the first few laps; you have to think about the whole two hours of racing. Then the last half-hour you can step it up.
"But I'm still learning about how to handle the pit road speeding limits. We have to be careful coming into the pits so we don't make any mistakes."
Pit road cops in the the Corona series use highway patrol radar guns, "so we can cheat a little," Quiroga says. "But up here we can't."
NASCAR's Mexico/Corona stockers do look pretty spiffy. This is German Quiroga's Dodge. Plenty of sponsorship here, it appears (Photo: OCESA)
NASCAR-in-Mexico, managed by NASCAR's Chad Little, marketed and directed by OCESA's Federico Alaman (sort of the Mike Helton down there), and race-day run by Enrique Contreras (the John Darby of the tour), has become rather sophisticated the last few years.
Will Quiroga be the first big player to make the step up from the Corona tour?
Ren says this is a one-race deal for Quiroga, to test the waters.
But Quiroga is thinking big: And next on Quiroga's NASCAR U.S. game plan – running in the Texas Motor Speedway Truck event Nov. 4th, and then maybe Homestead Nov. 20th. Because Quiroga hopes to run the full NASCAR Truck tour in 2012, beginning at Daytona SpeedWeeks.
Quiroga, who handles himself very well, says this project "is the logical next step….and I hope this weekend's race is just the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship with Kyle Busch.
"I'm confident this team can give me all I need to come run in 2012."
The kicker: one of Quiroga's sponsors here is Telcel, the Mexico cell phone giant, run by Carlos Slim, who has been a key part of NASCAR's Mexico marketing initiatives. Slim, who once hoped for a Cup race at Mexico City's Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, is one of the world's wealthiest men, with a 2011 portfolio estimated at $74 Billion US. Slim also runs the Sears empire in Mexico, certainly a positive connection for this sport.
So Busch himself, and Toyota, and NASCAR all have a lot riding on what happens next in this little drama.
However it's not quite clear precisely where Slim fits into the NASCAR scene right now…
Is NASCAR about to drop the ball on Montreal? How many international cities of four million does this sport play in, right in the heart of downtown? And why isn't Montreal a full Sprint Cup event? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR's Mexico focus now is on the Mexico/Corona tour (which it took over in 2007), this season is a 14-race series opening in Monterrey, and running at San Luis Potosi, Aguascalientes, Chiapas, Querétaro, Puebla, and Mexico City.
Quiroga isn't the only international racer in NASCAR right now; Max Papis, Nelson Piquet Jr., Miguel Paludo all run Trucks too, and of course Juan Pablo Montoya on the Sprint Cup side.
And Quiroga isn't Busch's first 'international' project. He had Formula One's Kimi Räikkönen in his Truck at Charlotte in May. Räikkönen ran a respectable 15th; but Räikkönen's Nationwide debut the following week at Charlotte wasn't quite as impressive – he ran 27th. And Räikkönen hasn't been heard from since.
But then the line on Räikkönen is he gets easily bored.
Don't quite have the same sense about Quiroga.
When Big Bill France was having a little trouble with Curtis Turner over that Teamsters thing, back in 1961, he went up to Washington, D.C., for some advice…and wound up talking with Bobby Kennedy and John Cassidy, then special assistant to the Attorney General.
When it comes to legendary NASCAR war stories, Cassidy, now 81 and still an active attorney with the huge Baker Botts firm, has quite a few to tell, from his many years as an advisor to NASCAR and the France family's International Speedway Corporation, on complex business issues from antitrust to competition rules and 'membership rights in voluntary organizations.'
In fact, it might be time for this sport's TV powers to get on the stick and get some of these classic stories on archival video. Maybe like the inside story behind the dealings between France and George Wallace over Talladega, in which Cassidy played a major role….
NASCAR has been expanding its roster of international racers....like Mayeve Dufault (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Which brings us to Jim Cassidy, his nephew -- and a key figure for quite a while now in NASCAR's international game plans – from Mexico City to Montreal, and maybe Calgary, and why not Vancouver, and then there's Toronto-Mosport too to consider.
The question: Why not Montreal as a full-fledged Sprint Cup event?
After that wild Nationwide race in Montreal last month -- NASCAR's third, maybe fourth, straight zany, knock 'em out of the way road race -- no wonder there is such a clamor to turn the Montreal stop into a Cup event. After all Montreal is a city of four million, and the track is smack in the middle of town, and it's a world-class course….and NASCAR doesn't play in the heart of many venues like that.
Jim Cassidy, a dozen years directly in the sport with NASCAR, and more if you consider his family's lengthy background, is NASCAR's managing director for racing operations, a quiet, studious man, low-keyed. And he's the sport's point man on the international game.
When NASCAR took the Busch/now-Nationwide tour to Mexico City in 2005, at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez right in the middle of that city of 23 million, NASCAR-International appeared gaining momentum. It was a pretty impressive launch, and there was considerable speculation that that event should be expanded to a full Cup event.
But the four-year Mexico City Nationwide project ended after the 2008 race; NASCAR considers it now as a marketing launch for the Corona series, rather than an international headline event for the sport itself.
And by not continuing Mexico City Nationwide, that project ended on a somewhat unfulfilled note, as if all the potential were not achieved.
Lowe's, for example, planned to use Adrian Fernandez' impact and talents to help expand into the Mexican market. And Fernandez was a focal point of NASCAR's Mexico City venture.
However Fernandez himself never really took full advantage of his own opportunities – a Chevy-backed ride with Rick Hendrick. And the sudden global economic slowdown didn't exactly help that Lowe's project either.
Don't think Marcos Ambrose, here on his way to winning Montreal, is thinking feather foot gas mileage racing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But Montreal, and why not Cup? That seems like a no-brainer, from the marketing standpoint. And there appears to be considerable sentiment in Canada for a Cup event.
Strike while the irons are hot?
Maybe the Montreal straights are a little long, and the corners a little tight, with heavy braking, and brake-checking occasionally.
But it is an amazing market. And the August show was a good one, with plenty of fireworks, and a good crowd. Hey, when was the last time you saw an angry crew chief reach inside the cockpit of a rival driver and pull his hair?
Particularly when compared to the rather staid Sprint Cup racing at Michigan International Speedway that weekend. If not for that green-white-checkered finish, that Michigan 400 would have been quite forgettable.
Jimmie Johnson says NASCAR not only needs more Cup events on road courses, he says there should be a Cup road race in the chase. And he is actively pushing for a Cup race in Canada.
Cassidy responds carefully:
"We've had good road course races at the Glen and Montreal, and at Road America too, and those are good marquee events for the Nationwide series.
"We have tried very hard to differentiate the Nationwide series, with the car. And those events are a big part of 'differentiation.'
"As far as a Cup race in Montreal – you know the story with that: we're set on our (Cup) schedule…."
Cassidy says there are no particular roadblocks to Montreal-as-a-Cup stop. "All the logistics work," he says. "It's really more of a scheduling standpoint, as many races as we have on the (Cup) schedule. You know how it works as far as 'realignments' (that is, moving a Cup date from one track to another).
"So we're kind of set where we're at…unless someone comes to us and says something. If someone came to us with a realignment plan, we'd have to take a much closer look at it."
Montreal, 2011: Jacques Villeneuve (22) versus Trevor Bayne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Japan, Germany, China, there are certainly other international venues for NASCAR to consider in its marketing.
But Cassidy says "We're more focused on North America right now and getting it right, before further expansion. But there is interest (from other places), and there are inquiries that come in…..
"Our focus is on North America right now, north and south -- and the Corona series and getting it right."
Of course when looking at NASCAR's Hispanic game plan, one of the most glaring issues is Los Angeles: Why in the world did NASCAR pull a major sports weekend out of the LA market? That seems an even bigger question, in light of this fall's championship chase.
NASCAR executives are currently wrapping up work on the 2012 touring schedules for all three major series, and renewing the contract with Montreal seems to be something of a hold-up at the moment. NASCAR would like the city to chip in $500,000 for promotion (not that much, considering the city of Austin, Texas, just anted up $25 million of taxpayer money for Bernie Ecclestone's Formula 1 event there).
NASCAR of course is quite pleased with Montreal, at the current level, Cassidy says.
"We want to race in Montreal. We love the race there, the track, the city, the venue, and most importantly the fans," Cassidy says.
"It's a great event for the Nationwide series, a great event for NASCAR. And it helps to continue to build the NASCAR Canadian Tire series. And Grand-Am is there as well. So it's a good mix of events for the weekend."
There are other Canadian angles too. Calgary is good truck country. And Vancouver already has a racing history, and it's a gateway to the American Northwest, where NASCAR has tried, unsuccessfully, to get a track built near Seattle.
"Our experience in Canada has been very good, and there has been continued interest from different parts of that country," Cassidy says.
"I was in Calgary a few years ago, for the Stampede, and I took some time to take a look around. And it was a really good feel.
"And if things line up right, then why not.
"Based upon our experiences in Montreal, and in Michigan and New Hampshire, with the influx of Canadian fans to those tracks, it's no secret that there is great interest up there.
"And Edmonton (where the Indy-car series plays) has proven to be very successful.
"And who knows down the road….."
But NASCAR continues to play it all quite conservatively.
Cassidy points to driver-crossover as key, and something NASCAR has been working toward with its Mexican Corona series. Quiroga could be the next big step, for both sides of the border.
The Canadian series is more established. While considerable public focus has been on the Montreal race itself, NASCAR is trying to use the event as a focal point in marketing the entire Canadian national series, just as it used the Mexico City race (2005-2008) as a linchpin for the Corona national series.
Cassidy is optimistic, but patient too. "Both series are growing well, tracks being built, car-count is good, crowds are good, the competition is getting better, and we're starting to see a little potential for break-in at the national series level (in the U.S.)," Cassidy says.
"When we first went into Mexico City, we were going into a largely open-wheel crowd. So it's been an educational process (with Mexico's race fans). We're growing in smaller venues…and it's nice to play in a city of 23 million (which NASCAR's Corona series does twice each season)."
Dodge and Napa have played major sponsorship roles in NASCAR's Montreal venture.
But on the sponsorship front, is NASCAR leveraging the business side of the international game as well as it could?
Of course just in the Sprint Cup garage the sport of NASCAR racing is hitting some big sponsorship bumps, with major players like UPS, Diageo and Red Bull pulling out or cutting back.
So maybe it's simply a good time to batten down the hatches and ride out the economic storm.
Still, there's the nagging feeling that executives in this sport are missing something big here, or have just missed something big.
NASCAR's general response has been that it's more interested in building racing series than in just promoting big events like Montreal and Mexico City.
Maybe that is the right marketing approach.
But maybe it's not.
Maybe NASCAR is missing the boat on Montreal by not seeing the 'big event' as a really big event. Maybe NASCAR should have kept that Mexico City headline race on the schedule.
Cassidy takes exception, cautioning patience:
"The Corona series is only in its infancy; it's still developing.
"And the Truck series is still developing on the sponsorship side.
"…and there's an education process for people to make the connection – who's being sponsored, what's being activated.
"That's pushing the sport in the United States. And that's still trickling down, to both north and south of the border.
"Since the Canadian Tire series is more established, you're seeing a little more corporate activity up there versus in Mexico.
"But that's still progressing, and everything is growing. Tracks and teams are getting bigger and better every year."
German Quiroga (Photo: OCESA)