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Mexico's NASCAR champ hopes to take next step

January 07, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Mexico's NASCAR champ hopes to take next step
Quiroga on all-out quest for sponsorship in order to run for KBM in Truck Series

Inside the cockpit, wedged between a steering wheel and a molded driver's seat, the challenges loom like speed traps on an interstate highway. There's the race truck itself, which is taller and boxier and punches a much bigger hole in the air than the stock cars he is more accustomed to. There are the tracks, most of which are larger and faster and feature more banking than the 1-mile layouts that dominate the NASCAR Mexico Corona Series. There is the communication -- how tight is "tight," actually? -- which can be a hurdle for any driver, not to mention one for whom English is a second language.

But for all that, the driving is the easy part. Everything else about Germán Quiroga's attempt to make it at NASCAR's national level -- a venture that began almost literally with knocking on doors, and has progressed to a sponsorship search for the 2012 Camping World Truck Series schedule -- is more difficult by comparison.

"My goal is to really show that NASCAR Mexico has the potential to export drivers to the United States, and also to open the door to those drivers in the national series."

--GERMAN QUIROGA

"When we have the sponsor, it's going to be easier. It's going to take something out of my life," Quiroga said recently. "Right now, I have to keep working."

The 31-year-old native of Mexico City won 15 races and three consecutive championships in the Mexico Series, and is trying to use that success as a springboard into the Truck Series ranks with Kyle Busch Motorsports, for whom he ran two races in the No. 51 last season. As with everything these days, the quest for sponsorship is a never-ending headache, and Quiroga and KBM hope to have the driver's 2012 plans firmed up sometime next week. In the meantime, the work continues for a savvy and personable driver who wants to become the latest from NASCAR's international ventures to make it at the sport's national division in America.

"I've been doing many, many things these past few years that are helping me out in my career, and I think with my experience, if I can start opening doors in NASCAR, maybe it's going to be easier for a younger kid to come up to here," he said. "If nobody opens the door, it's going to be tougher. My goal is to really show that NASCAR Mexico has the potential to export drivers to the United States, and also to open the door to those drivers in the national series."

NASCAR Mexico, a joint venture between the sanctioning body and the Mexican entertainment and media conglomerate OCESA, is part of an international initiative begun in 2004 that includes a similar effort in Canada. A few drivers from the sport's Canadian arm, most notably Andrew Ranger and D.J. Kennington, have dipped a toe in stateside competition. In Mexico, Quiroga has emerged as the breakout star of the eight-year-old circuit, winning the past three championships, clinching the most recent one even before the final race of 2011. Having accomplished everything he could south of the border, he came north looking for a foothold on NASCAR's national level.

A sponsor tie-in with Shell/Pennzoil, which also backs a car at Penske Racing, brought him to last season's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as a spectator. Quiroga realized that the Truck Series might be the most cost-effective way into NASCAR's big leagues, but Penske didn't have a Truck team. But Kyle Busch Motorsports, housed nearby in Mooresville, N.C., did. So Quiroga sent out an email and then stopped by the shop, where he met with KBM sponsorship point man Butch Cox, and over time a plan was cobbled together to put Quiroga in the No. 51 truck for the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished 16th.

Quiroga later ran the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he was involved in an accident and finished 26th. But he needed that start to get approved by NASCAR to race on larger tracks, the first of which he hopes is Daytona International Speedway in the kickoff to a full-time Truck effort this year.

"For sure, its going to be the most difficult year of my life," Quiroga said. "... I like to be competitive. I don't like to be in the back. And if I accomplish the sponsorship to come here, it's because they're trusting me that I can be in the top of the series. I'm going to push really hard. I'm going to prepare myself, and keep learning. I think it's time to learn as much as I can in a [shorter] period of time in order to have the best results possible. That's what I'm trying to do."

KBM general manager Rick Ren said this week that Quiroga has been approved by NASCAR to run Daytona, and that the team is trying to make that happen. Everything, though, hinges on funding.

"It is still a possibility. Our negotiations have gone a lot more in-depth," Ren said. "Right now he's got some verbal commitments, but we all understand in this industry what a verbal commitment means -- it doesn't mean a lot. He's trying to finalize himself down there, and we told him that the clock is ticking. We drew a line in the sand, so to speak -- we have to have an answer by such-and-such a day, or it's just going to be impossible for us to make Daytona. But he's got a verbal commitment to do most of the season, not enough to do the whole season."

On the track as well as off, it's been an often trying process. Ren said Quiroga made great progress between his first and second Truck Series starts last season, even though that growth wasn't reflected in the final results. Quiroga said racing in the Mexico Series is very competitive, so he has plenty of experience going door-to-door. "But to drive to the limit in Truck, it's taking me quite a bit," he said. "It's very different from what I'm used to. So I'm getting used to this type of racing, with the handling of the truck and everything."

The transition is not unexpected, especially in light of Quiroga's background. Like many Mexican racers of his generation, he originally set his sights on Formula One, and competed in open-wheel ladder circuits like Indy Lights, Formula Renault, and the Barber Pro Series. "But we struggled with money and couldn't get to the level we wanted, so we had to quit," Quiroga said. He returned to Mexico and began competing in his country's fledgling stock-car series, which received a boost when NASCAR became involved. Three championships later, he's trying to branch out yet again.

KBM officials are high on Quiroga's talent, and are adamant that this is not a case of a driver trying to buy a ride. "He's won three championships in a row. It doesn't matter what series you race in or where you race, if you've won three championships in a row, you know how to race," Ren said. "... I think if you can put in your stable championship-caliber race car drivers, once they learn now to race in our league, they'll have the opportunity to become champions a lot easier than other people."

What kind of upside does Mexico's three-time champion have? "Right now it's anything. It's limitless, you know?" Busch said. "The problem, of course, as we all know, is funding and being able to put somebody's name on the side of the truck."

Regardless of the series, that sticking point still remains. Quiroga does have some backing from Telcel, a Mexican telecommunications company owned by Carlos Slim, who is reportedly the richest man in the world. Telcel was Quiroga's sponsor for both of his truck races with KBM in 2011. "I think that's probably where he'll go to first, due to his relationship with some of the companies that are underneath Carlos Slim's umbrella," Ren said. "But they have advertising budgets just like anybody else, and it has to make business sense for them to advertise in the United States."

But Quiroga's association with Slim doesn't come with a blank check, especially since the Mexican magnate is also an investor in a Formula One team. Quiroga's hope is that he can cobble something together with companies that market to the Hispanic population. Much of the pressure to find sponsorship is on the driver himself, and the tension of the endeavor can sometimes be seen in his face. "My job is everything," he said prior to his most recent Truck Series start, at Homestead. "To get to this race, you wouldn't believe what I've done."

Now a larger, more stressful deadline approaches, one on which Quiroga's dream of a full season in NASCAR hinges. He's trying to tackle it step by step. "If you jump [past] one step, sometimes you have to go back," he said. "I don't want to go back."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Related: 2011 Mexico Series year in review | NASCAR Home Tracks