Can former open-wheel star Juan Pablo Montoya steer his stock car where no foreign NASCAR driver has ever driven before? NASCAR and Chip Ganassi Racing are betting on it.
They believe Montoya, 31, is the one who will break through as the American-dominated sport’s first foreign superstar, complete with a solid U.S. fan base.
It will take a few Nextel Cup victories and maybe a championship down the road, they believe, but this Colombian-born rookie is their guy.
“He’s a global racing icon, and the United States is the final frontier for that,” said Chris Weiller, vice president of business development for Chip Ganassi Racing, which races Montoya in the No. 42 Dodge Nextel Cup and Busch cars.
His fifth-place finish in the Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 18 — just his fifth Nextel Cup race — followed by his eighth-place showing last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway has piqued the interest of NASCAR officials as well.
“NASCAR fans value performance,” said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR’s managing director of public affairs. “Based on his performance thus far, he’s going to be winning over a lot of NASCAR fans.”
Not that NASCAR’s interest in Montoya needed any piquing, mind you.
Montoya had conquered the world in open-wheel racing, attracting millions of fans across the globe during his successful years in Formula One and Champ Cars. He won the Grand Prix of Monaco in 2003, F1’s premier race, and he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000.
Having a racer with those lofty credentials on board prompted NASCAR to hold a “Montoya Summit” last fall to figure out how to market and best promote the potential star. “It was about how to really meld the brand that is Juan Pablo Montoya — international racing superstar — with NASCAR,” Jadotte said.
NASCAR was thrilled with the chance to showcase Montoya to an estimated 42 million Hispanics, a demographic that the growing sport had trouble reaching.
He’s the focus of a new advertising campaign by NASCAR to reach the American Hispanic community. And that’s just a sliver of the exposure Montoya will enjoy during his rookie season.
He recently shot a pair of Dodge television commercials and will also hawk Wrigley chewing gum in another TV spot. He’s a Sirius Satellite Radio spokesman with his own show, and he recently taped a TV public service announcement for seat-belt safety (in English and Spanish) that will be viewed in several states. He’s done plenty of promotional work for his primary sponsor, Texaco Havoline.
Also, ABC television is planning to launch a series of one-hour NASCAR primetime shows this summer with Montoya as the series’ subject for the first show.
But Montoya perhaps has a heftier task ahead as far as building his fan base: Winning over old-school American stock-car fans.
“You don’t only want (Latinos) following you,” he said. “You want all kinds of people following you.”
And those people will follow once they see him drive, Montoya said. “I’m a guy that likes driving the wheels off the race car. I’ll race hard. I’ll have respect for the guys I’m racing against, and I think the fans will like that. I think we’re going to see a lot of 'oh yeah, he’s nice.’ You’re going to see some fans that think it’s a great thing and some other good ol’ boys that say, 'we don’t want you.’”
Very few foreign athletes have reached rock-star status in the United States, that level of popularity where millions of Americans embrace the outsider as one of their own.
Wayne Gretzky and Sammy Sosa soared to those iconic levels of popularity normally reserved for the homegrown Michael Jordans and Babe Ruths of American sport.
International soccer star David Beckham is on his way to the U.S. this summer to play Major League Soccer, and league officials believe he’s next in line for such big-time celebrity status in the states while holding a passport or visa.
Athletes like Ichiro and Steve Nash certainly are flirting with the adoration of this country, but their most fervent following remains back home in Japan and Canada.
NASCAR, with its strong Southern roots and love affair with American cars, would likely be perceived as this country’s last bastion for a foreign athlete to be widely embraced.
But winning and continued success could change all that for Montoya, several Nextel Cup drivers believe.
His fan base will likely expand with American Hispanics first, Kyle Petty believes. “I think when he wins in this country, the Latin population in this country will just go wild,” said Petty, driver of the No. 45 Dodge. “That’s all you can say.
“I think when Juan wins races, I think the Latin community looks up and says, 'Yes, that’s for us,’ ” Petty said.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, one of the sport’s icons, said he believes Montoya could bridge the international gap for NASCAR.
“I think he could reach a whole other level with the worldwide fans,” Gordon said.
And there’s plenty of room in NASCAR for Montoya to draw his share of fans, according to Gordon. “You’re always going to give up something to gain something else. Just like my popularity. I might not have the type of fans like Dale Earnhardt Jr. has, but I’ve got fans that he doesn’t. I don’t think it’s all about trying to get every fan it’s trying to get the most that you can. I think that he’s got the potential of doing that in a big way.”
Gordon said he’d even follow the No. 42. “If I was a fan out there and he started winning on a consistent basis, I would pull for him,” he said.
But with the competitive nature of NASCAR, the days of winning 13 races in a season — like Gordon did in 1998 — are gone, so Montoya may have a little longer path to potential stardom than drivers in the past.
“It’s a marathon for him, not a sprint,” Ganassi’s Weiller said.
“It’s going to be over the course of years that you’ll see his brand and his popularity grow.”
Subway Fresh Fit 500
When: Gates open at noon; race at 5:30 p.m. today
Where: Phoenix International Raceway
TV: Ch. 10