By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006
HOMESTEAD, Fla., Nov. 17 -- While awaiting the start of Saturday's Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR fans will be serenaded by the music of Argentinean pop singer Gizelle D'Cole and treated to the final round of the salsa competition "Bailando por la Copa" ("Dancing for the Cup").
It's hardly NASCAR's typical prerace fare. But the South Florida speedway's lineup of Latin-themed entertainment reflects stock-car racing's latest marketing initiative: To expand its prodigious fan base by tapping into the roughly 40 million Latinos in the United States who have yet to declare their NASCAR allegiances.
No one bears the weight of that ambition more than Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya, the open-wheel ace who made headlines last summer by announcing that he was leaving Formula One, the most elite form of motorsports, for NASCAR.
Montoya's announcement lit up the switchboards at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was deluged with calls from fans who had followed the Miami resident's open-wheel exploits, according to track president Curtis Gray. And Gray expects an equally fervent response this weekend, when Montoya will race in Saturday's Busch race and make his Nextel Cup debut on Sunday, having qualified for the season-ending Ford 400 on Friday. Montoya will line up 29th in the No. 30 Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Gray calls Montoya's entry into NASCAR nothing short of the biggest thing to happen in the track's history.
"To have a world-class Hispanic driver that lives in Miami and is a household name in South America and around the world enter into this series is fantastic for us," Gray said Friday. "It'll change this place forever. We've got a good motorsports fan base here, but in order to grow we've got to attract the Hispanic market. To have a driver they can relate to and root for is a reason for them to come to the speedway."
Montoya's successful qualifying run (he lapped the 1.5-mile oval at 175.581 mph) represents one more step in his transition from the high-tech, finicky Formula One cars to the hulking stock cars.
Meantime, Kasey Kahne won his sixth pole of the season, earning the right to start first in Sunday's race with his lap of 178.259 mph. Points leader Jimmie Johnson, who'll clinch the championship with a 12th-place finish, will line up 15th. Matt Kenseth, who trails Johnson by 63 points, will start 17th.
While Formula One enthusiasts might assume the switch to stock cars would be a snap, it is riddled with challenges.
At 3,600 pounds, NASCAR's Cup cars weigh more than twice as much as Formula One cars, and they have skinnier tires, brakes that aren't nearly as effective and the responsiveness of a giant tortoise. Then there are the differences that can't be measured or even seen, such as aerodynamic turbulence that results when massive cars tangle nose-to-tail and side-to-side at top speed.
"The hard thing is, you don't understand when you come from open wheel that the car behind you can affect the car in front," said Montoya, 31. "In open wheel, the car behind gets all the dirty air, and you're fine."
It's not that way in NASCAR, where one car can wreck another simply by pulling up on its bumper and disrupting the air.
"The thing about Nextel Cup cars is, they're big, they're heavy, they've got the least tire on them touching the ground," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's competition director. "They make a lot of horsepower, and they are really, really difficult to drive."
No one's saying Montoya can't master the art. The Colombian, who won the 1999 CART championship and 2000 Indianapolis 500, commands tremendous respect among his new peers. But most say it will take time and predict he won't succeed unless he forgets everything he learned and every instinct he developed in open-wheel racing.
"I'm confident he'll pull it off provided he has the staying power of Chip [Ganassi], his sponsors and himself," said Robby Gordon, who made the switch from off-road and Indy cars to NASCAR, "because it's going to be a couple-year process."
Montoya's early efforts already have attracted a big audience. His stock-car racing debut in an ARCA race at Talladega in October was front-page news in Colombia. Officials at Homestead-Miami Speedway have issued credentials for roughly 50 South American and European reporters for this weekend's races; they're here, Gray said, expressly because of Montoya.
Diego Fernando Mejia, who works for a Colombian radio station, is among them, and he plans to follow every lap of Montoya's 2007 NASCAR campaign, as well.
"NASCAR hasn't been very big in Colombia," Mejia said Friday. "Maybe people knew about Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, but not much more than that. And now, people getting involved. I think the long-term, if Juan is successful it will grow even more. But if not, I'm sure people will start to know what NASCAR is all about."
And Homestead-Miami Speedway wants to be sure stock-car racing's new fans feel at home.
"The research we've done shows that one of the reasons the Latin audience hasn't been attracted to NASCAR in the past is because they haven't felt welcome," Gray says. "So to have some Latin music and Latin food is a way to show we want them to feel comfortable and welcome when they get here."