NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series readies for first-ever U.S. race
Forget crashes and debris cautions -- in the days leading up to the first NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series event in the United States, Joe Balash’s bigger concerns were tomatoes, peppers and avocados. Winter is peak season for fruits and vegetables coming into the U.S. from Mexico, which means a glut of produce-laden tractor-trailers at border crossings, and potentially longer wait times for race transporters headed to Phoenix International Raceway.
These are the things Balash frets over in his new role as NASCAR’s international competition liaison, a position that will be in the spotlight this weekend when the Mexican series competes in the United States for the first time. For drivers on that circuit, Friday night’s event is an opportunity to shine with the eyes of the industry upon them. For NASCAR, the race is part of an international strategy that also includes tours in Canada and Europe, and may one day expand to other parts of the world.
“It’s really multi-faceted,” said Balash, formerly the director of the NASCAR Nationwide Series. “It’s a way to develop relationships between sponsors in both countries. It’s a way to expose the drivers to more NASCAR style stock-car racing. It goes a long way with the steps we’re taking in our diversity program, and those types of things. So there are different things it encompasses, having that race in Phoenix.”
"The world population right now is 7 billion. We want all of ’em."
-- Joe Balash, NASCAR’s international competition liaison
But first there are those fruits and vegetables, passports and other matters related to crossing the border. Balash said the logistics of getting the Toyota Series teams to Phoenix are similar to those used by Nationwide outfits traveling to Mexico City, where that circuit competed from 2005-08. The transporters were to travel north and muster in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., where -- because of differences in trucking regulations between the two countries -- they were to be switched onto tractors that met U.S. standards.
Most Toyota Series teams are based around Mexico City, Balash said, and given that the circuit also competes in the northern state of Chihuahua, he didn’t expect the Phoenix trip to cost owners more than a few extra thousand dollars. Some teams were doubling up on transporters in an effort to save money, and the event itself will be broken into segments of 50 and 25 laps so organizations don’t have to travel with full crews or perform full pit stops. The vehicles are similar to those used in the K&N Pro Series.
Under NASCAR’s stewardship, the Toyota Series has experienced an uptick in attendance and a schedule expansion that’s seen several tracks built or refurbished. The pacesetter for NASCAR’s international efforts continues to be the Canadian Tire Series, which has existed for more than two decades under several different names, and enjoys relatively high visibility by competing at established venues throughout the country. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Euro Racecar Series, which debuted under NASCAR sanctioning last year.
Although the Euro circuit competes at renowned facilities like LeMans and Brands Hatch, the series is still in its infancy. Balash said the circuit is “more a celebration of American stock-car racing,” pointing out that one event in France last year also featured a country music concert, a Harley-Davidson show and a military reenactment. “The popularity is there,” he added, “but I think we’re just scratching the surface right now.”
The purpose of such efforts is to develop not just fans, but also talent behind the wheel. One of Balash’s responsibilities is to assist drivers who hope to one day break into NASCAR circuits in the United States, of which there is no shortage. Three-time Mexico champion German Quiroga has competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Canadian Tire regulars D.J. Kennington, J.R. Fitzpatrick and Andrew Ranger have made numerous starts on the Nationwide tour, K&N Pro Series contender Ben Kennedy won the inaugural oval race on the Euro circuit last season and 2010 Toyota Series Rookie of the Year Daniel Suarez, a member of the 2013 Drive for Diversity class who will drive for Rev Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East this year.
"The dream of all the drivers is to be one driver in the national series, in the Nationwide, Trucks or Sprint Cup," Suarez told ESPN.com last month during a Google+ Hangout with other members of the Drive for Diversity class. "One big step for me in this year, 2013, is getting in this awesome program."
On Wednesday, Suarez took part in the NASCAR Foundation's NASCAR Meets NASCAR -- Gears and Galaxies event at the Challenger Space Center in Peoria, Ariz. The Foundation's first NASCAR Dreams event of 2013 hosted more than 300 children and their families from the Littleton School District to experience the science and technology of the sport and meet NASA Astronaut William G. Gregory and Suarez, who will run the No. 3 TELCEL Dodge in Friday night's race.
“You have to remember, there are still only so many seats available,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition. “When you’re looking at a (NASCAR) weekend, you’re only looking at 105, 100-something seats that are available. We’ve got guys in K&N who are talented, and there’s no room in the inn. So it’s nice to have other series where you can put more butts in the seats.”
Balash says NASCAR often receives inquiries from parties in other countries interested in American style stock-car racing, but the sanctioning body is looking only for serious opportunities to put on professional events. Toward that end, the Euro series holds races in Italy, England, France and Spain. Brazil, which has its own stock-car circuit, is on the radar. And NASCAR’s national events in the U.S. are broadcast on television in 134 different countries.
“The world population right now is 7 billion. We want all of ’em,” Balash said. “So there’s a goal to reach out for.”
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