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A Middle Eastern NASCAR? Well, it looks like George Gillett has a pretty stout financial backer

   Richard Petty is suddenly in high cotton, with business partner George Gillett working a deal with the Saudis (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   If this Saudi deal that George Gillett -- the owner of Richard Petty Motorsports -- is working on really comes through, and he's talking big, then what changes might ensue for this sport?
   Certainly the price of poker could go up over here. There's a lot of oil in Saudi Arabia, where Gillett's new business partner, Prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdulla, is part of the royal family, and a big sportsman.
   In fact the mood in parts of the Doug Yates-Jack Roush camp is somewhat euphoric, it would seem, though neither Roush Fenway president Geoff Smith or Doug Yates, head of Yates Racing, which is to 'merge' with Gillett's Richard Petty Motorsports, is here this weekend to talk about things.
   A NASCAR Cup 'exhibition' in the Saudi kingdom?
   Well, NASCAR's Bill France Jr. hauled this entire series – every single team and driver – over to Japan three straight years, in the mid-1990s, for 'exhibitions,' to judge interest in a potential Japanese NASCAR tour.   
   Saudi Arabia? How long does it take to ship a car in a cargo container from Wilmington, N.C., to the Persian Gulf?
   Well, it's unlikely NASCAR itself would be making any such move. But certainly North Carolina stock car builders and engine builders might be interested. After all the cars that ran in that short-lived Speedcar series (2008-2009) in the Middle East and Far East were built in North Carolina shops. The Speedcar series was based in Dubai, also on the gulf of the Saudi peninsula.
   Gillett here Saturday raised the possibility of a stock car series in the Middle East, and he said his business partners had identified 14 places where tracks could be built, tracks that Gillett said would likely be short-tracks, probably something like Richmond. Plus there are already two new world-class Formula One tracks near Saudi Arabia.

  Bahrain Grand Prix course: on George Gillett's radar for stock cars? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

  The island kingdom of Bahrain – which is just off the coast of Saudi Arabia and connected by a causeway – hosts an annual Formula One event each spring at Bahrain International, a road course, and also a V-8 Supercar event (5-liter pushrod V-8s, a series based in Australia). That 3.3-mile track is a Hermann Tilke design.
    And the V-8 Supercar tour will run in nearby Abu Dhabi on the new F1 course there, in 2010. Abu Dhabi, in fact, hosts this season's F1 finale, in a few weeks, at a brand new course, the 3.4-mile Yas Marina Circuit (also designed by Tilke).
    On top of all that, His Highness Sheik Khalid Al Thani, of Qatar, another country next to Saudi Arabia, has a major-league NHRA Top Fuel team in the US (with Larry Dixon, running for the championship this fall). That team's chief goal is "to promote the domestic and international awareness of motorsports in the nation of Qatar." And the only sponsor decal Al Thani allows on Dixon's car -- a Toyota decal.
    So when Gillett talks about a Middle East stock car series, he may not just be blowing smoke.  
   The Bahrain F1 track, considered exceptionally safe, is just one of six motorsports arenas at that facility. (An interesting note – don't expect champagne in victory lane, even though alcoholic beverages are legal in that country. Alcohol is not legal in Saudi Arabia or Qatar.)

    New Chevrolet boss Brent Dewar has talked about the importance of looking internationally.
    And Ford's Jack Roush, who is the heavyweight business partner with Doug Yates and who thus certainly has an interest in how the Gillett-Petty-Yates merger comes off, says a Middle Eastern racing series would be intriguing…particularly since Roush is in the business of selling engines, cars and engineering support as well as just racing NASCAR.
   "Have you ever been to Qatar? I've been to Qatar – in 2003, when we went over to Iraq. But we landed after dark and took off just after sunrise….so we didn't see much of it," Roush says.
   "That part of the world is very interesting.
   "The popularity of NASCAR (Sprint Cup) in the United States is so consuming, so we don't have the prospect of loading up and going to the Persian Gulf to have a race and coming back and still have our schedule work.
   "But certainly some part of NASCAR (perhaps Nationwide, which has Montreal on its tour, and has had Mexico City) or one of the other series in the world, like the Australian series, would be fun.
   "And the idea of a spec car and spec engine could be interesting.
    "And they've got a lot of sand, so there wouldn't be any trouble pouring concrete…and a lot of oil too, so they can make a lot of asphalt.
   "So building race tracks wouldn't be a problem.
    "Depending on how engaged their population is (as potential fans) for the sport, it would be a promoter's opportunity.
   "Technologically….I've loaded up engines and sent them off to at least three different series in Europe.
    "However none of those series had much staying power.
    "Still, the Saudis, with their income stream, may have a little more staying power.
     "If they would like to have a series, I'm sure we could support it with hardware."

But Toyota's Lee White, that company's racing boss, says he might have to do some research about the market demographics before being able to make any recommendations to his company about any such Middle Eastern venture. "We'd have to do a little research to see if running NASCAR cars outside of North America would be good for business for us," White says. "We weren't engaged (in NASCAR) when NASCAR went to Japan for those exhibitions. I think that was probably okay for business, but I don't know that that sold any cars in Japan or U.S.
     "It certainly hasn't been of any great interest to us since we started in these three NASCAR series in 2004. This (Toyota's NASCAR operation) has been more about the 'Americanization' of Toyota….thus far.
     "However you're right – it's a global economy. Automotive manufacturers are typically global companies if they're going to be successful. So there may be some benefit there.
     "But it's going to take a little research to figure out what the real benefit might be.
     "And a few comments from George Gillett doesn't necessarily mean that NASCAR is heading off to the Persian Gulf. That would be up to Brian France and Mike Helton. That's a pretty big leap."
    Of course Toyota already spends maybe $500 million a year on its international Formula One effort, while General Motors and Ford have no such F1 operations.


    Doug Yates (R, with Bill Elliott) hasn't been at a track in months. So how is the merger with George Gillett going? (Photo: Autostock)


Mike, if you get a chance to

Mike, if you get a chance to watch any of the practice/qualifying/race of the Formula One Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi. That place is incredible! If Gillett has a Middle Eastern connection in his back pocket? Watch out NASCAR. Better yet, watch out ISC!!!!

i'll do it. thanks. maybe the

i'll do it. thanks. maybe the saudis ought to buy nascar.....

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