Racing in Mexico fine, but how about Canada?

March 06, 2006|By ED HINTON | ED HINTON,ORLANDO SENTINEL

NASCAR made its second annual appearance in Mexico this weekend, and it was successful again. And that is terrific.

But I keep wondering, as I have for decades: What about Canada?

Fox's live telecast of yesterday's Busch Series race from Mexico City offered Hispanic audiences the option of play-by-play in Spanish via the "SAP," or Second Audio Programming, system.

Jim Hunter, the NASCAR vice president for corporate communications, makes no bones about it: "We need the Hispanic market."

But nowhere, outside the United States, is NASCAR more popular than in Canada; it's the elephant in the room of all conversation about the international expansion of NASCAR.

Canadians have massed along their border with the U.S. And it is true that they are bent on invasion. What not enough Americans understand is that they already have invaded, wave after wave, summer after summer, for many years.

Their objectives -- which they overrun easily, and benignly -- are the racetracks in Brooklyn, Mich.; Watkins Glen, N.Y.; and Loudon, N.H.

Michigan has sold out 30-something Nextel Cup races in a row, and to understand what makes that a lock, twice a year, every year, you need only hear the roar at the pre-race singing of "O Canada!"

What keeps the grandstands at New Hampshire packed? What makes the party mood at The Glen rival that of even the glory years of the old U.S. Grand Prix there? Just check out all those Quebec and Ontario license plates -- and all those Molson and Labatt bottles on the ground.

For as long as I can remember, winter raiding parties have struck deep into NASCAR territory, all the way to Daytona Beach itself.

Short-tracking abounds up in Canada. The Wallaces of St. Louis -- dad Russ Wallace and sons Rusty Wallace, Mike Wallace and Kenny Wallace -- used to make regular forays in their early years.

Not many people remember this, but the only non-U.S. driver to win a Cup race was Earl Ross of Ailsa Craig, Ontario, in 1974, at Martinsville, Va., driving for Junior Johnson and as a teammate of Cale Yarborough. Ross didn't beat any slouch, either. He out-dueled Buddy Baker.

Now granted, there were more Mexican drivers -- eight -- in yesterday's race than there have been Canadian drivers in NASCAR, ever.

But it's easy to recruit Mexican drivers for NASCAR. Mexico long has been a significant cradle of racers, dating to the late national legend in Formula One, Pedro Rodriguez, for whom the Mexico City road course is named. Like the Brazilians who thrive in Indy cars, Mexico's drivers are schooled mainly in open-wheel cars on road courses. But it's just a matter of converting them for NASCAR.

Canada, too, loves road racing, but it also has hard-knocks oval drivers, racing on weekends and working other full-time jobs, looking for breaks.

NASCAR flirted last year with the idea of a Busch road race in Montreal this year, but scheduling issues arose. A Canadian Busch race -- although not a Cup race -- still is being considered. Trouble is, freezing weather makes for a smaller scheduling window in Canada than in Mexico.

Even so, as aggressive as NASCAR has been in its schedule of late, it looks like it would find a way. The real obstacle might be this: NASCAR needs Hispanic fans; NASCAR has Canadian fans.

So the absence of a race on Canadian soil amounts, de facto, to taking Canadians for granted. And that just isn't fair to the tens of thousands who spend millions pouring across the borders, buying up prime seats, food and merchandise at U.S. racetracks, every season.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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