The dateline wasn't Daytona Beach, Darlington, or Charlotte, but it was a NASCAR story just the same when Heikki Kovalainen of Finland beat world rally champion Sebastien Loeb of France to win the Race of Champions in Saint Denis, France, in December.
Buried deep in the text was a reference to Casey Mears and Jimmie Johnson, a pair of NASCAR standouts who also participated in the international event. Jean Alesi eliminated Mears, who raced in place of an ailing Jeff Gordon, in a preliminary heat while Johnson, jet-lagged after an all-night flight from the NASCAR Nextel Cup banquet in New York City, also lost early.
The fact that both Mears and Johnson were on hand for the event, which featured drivers from all over the world in identically prepared cars racing head-to-head on twin rally courses, illustrates the reach NASCAR has had into the international motorsports market, a nugget NASCAR has significant interest in.
"We're very much in the early stages of examining the opportunities that exist and what makes sense for us internationally," said Robbie Weiss, NASCAR International Managing Director. "If you look around the world, there's a tremendous following for motorsports. What we don't know right now is what role NASCAR plays in that. We don't know how big or what degree that could be. What we're trying to do now is patiently find what will work for us."
Tuning InLike everything in NASCAR's world, television will grease the organization's international expansion. Prior to consolidating its television rights in 2001, NASCAR events were regularly seen in no more than 10 countries worldwide. Today, NASCAR events are telecast to more than 150 countries worldwide in over 20 different languages. NASCAR's global broadcast partners will air more than 4,000 hours of NASCAR-related programming outside the United States in 2005.
NASCAR is also hot on the Internet, ranking third among American sports leagues in foreign traffic on its Web site and trailing only the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association.
Clearly, the interest internationally is there and so are the dynamics. Boasting more than 50 million residents and active stock car racing organizations already in place, England, Mexico, Japan, Brazil, and Canada are potential megamarkets for NASCAR-branded event and merchandise initiatives.
Considering the global success of Formula One, one has to wonder how potentially big the international market could eventually be for NASCAR.
"Formula One is a tremendous worldwide property," said Weiss. "A big part of that is they travel from country to country, continent to continent. That's not practical for NASCAR, and I don't think it's realistic to say we are ever going to grow to the point that they are. I do believe we can develop a significant following in foreign markets that will grow our business and grow our brand. That's also sure to help our team sponsors that trade in other markets. If we're successful in doing that, I don't think it will change the world we operate in today, but we can expand the marketplace and provide new opportunities for the industry."
The most high profile of NASCAR's initial international "opportunities" in 2005 will be the Busch Series race in Mexico City at the famed Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course. NASCAR has had an eye on Mexico as an event venue since founder Bill France, Sr. competed in a road race there in 1950. The Mexico City race will be the first points event held outside the United States for the Busch Series.
"Mexico has a long tradition in motorsports, and we are thrilled that NASCAR is now a part of it," stated NASCAR chairman Brian France in making the scheduling announcement last summer. "Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is a beautiful track that provides our Busch Series teams the opportunity to perform on an international stage."
If performing on the international stage is NASCAR's goal, it will ultimately have to cultivate a base of foreign drivers. In some ways, it's inevitable. As more NASCAR events and related programming are seen worldwide, the interest will increase. That will lead to more international drivers, much the same as it has led to foreign-born participants in other professional sports that enjoy worldwide acceptance such as baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer.
Over the years, there have been a number of foreign drivers who have competed in NASCAR events. Mexican road race star Pedro Rodriquez competed in the '60s while Canadian Trevor Boys and a number of Australian drivers tried their hand at NASCAR in the '70s and '80s. More recently, Canadian Ron Fellows has performed well in select NASCAR road course events, and Japanese driver Hideo Fukuyama competed in several Cup events. Mexico's Carlos Contreras was a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series regular for three years, Brazil's Christian Fittipaldi tried his hand at Busch Series racing, as did England's Michael Vergers. With interest high and special programs in place, more foreign drivers are sure to make the leap to NASCAR.
"I am really trying to get myself into a NASCAR series," said Italian racer Gian Maria Gabbiani, who won a F-3000 Pro Series race and competed for Saleen Team Graham Nash in several events in 2004. "I spent a few weeks in North Carolina testing a Late Model car, and I raced at Caraway Speedway in 2003. I really like the NASCAR atmosphere. I spoke with some of the major Nextel Cup teams about the diversity program, and we'll see what happens in the next few months."
Without foreign stars, NASCAR will experience limited growth internationally. While the NFL points to the success of NFL Europe, it's because it serves as a player development league, not because the locals have embraced it. Soccer, meanwhile, is the number-one participation sport internationally but struggles in the United States as there are few American soccer stars, and professional soccer team rosters remain populated mostly by foreign athletes toiling in empty stadiums amid public apathy.
According to Sean Murphy, a 20-year-old who raced go-carts and Formula cars overseas for five years before taking a swing at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2004, NASCAR wasn't a big talking point in his peer group's bench racing conversations.
"I was with a Formula One Junior Team in Europe, and nobody really talked about NASCAR," said Murphy, who now lives in Florida but was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia. "It wasn't like we watched it regularly on television or thought about being involved in it. I still get calls from my Formula One friends kidding me about trying to race in the Truck Series. The cars that race in Europe are lighter and more technically advanced, especially in suspension and brakes. People over there see oval racing as boring. I used to think that too. It's a lot more complex than it looks. But as far as people following oval racing PR wanting to get into NASCAR, there were sections of racing magazines [about the winner] of the last NASCAR race. It really wasn't on our radar screen."
Ultimately, the television screen, and not the radar screen, will be the most important component in selling NASCAR abroad.
"TV is starting to promote American races, and now we can follow all the NEXTEL Cup Series events on the Italian satellite," stated Gabbiani. "Unfortunately, the races air a week after every event."
While nobody is saying NASCAR is going to start building tracks abroad, the brand is strong, and NASCAR's parent company, International Speedway Corporation, was recently named one of the Top 30 Best Bet publicly traded stocks by a major financial service. That's Top 30 out of countless stocks worldwide. Why wouldn't NASCAR want to go global?
"We're taking a hard look at the business ventures we've initiated in Mexico and Canada [where NASCAR developed an alliance with CASCAR, a Canadian stock car series, and with TSN, a leading motorsports network]," said Weiss. "Both are unique markets, and we want to take things step by step. That's our focus now. We don't have a timeline or a particular strategy to expand. We've taken the 'let's be slow and smart' attitude, and [we'll] see where we can go there. The interesting part about going into Europe, from my perspective, is if you look at a country like the United Kingdom, the average person on the street in London will claim not to know anything about stock car or oval racing. Yet, I've been to more than 30 short tracks around the U.K., and they are well aware of Salon Car or Banger racing as they call it over there. Ultimately, I think there's more interest there than we think."
New Brands, New MarketsNASCAR's international growth is also sure to get a shot of nitrous when Toyota makes its inevitable jump to the organization's top series-Nextel Cup-by 2007. That will create a global marketing impact the size of the sun, as other car companies with American ties, such as Mercedes and "foreign" makes the likes of Nissan or Honda, join the party.
A Dodge, Honda, Mercedes battle to the finish at Daytona, London, Milan, or Tokyo would produce seismic interest internationally and scores of new drivers and fans worldwide. Far-fetched? Think of how different NASCAR looked 10 years ago. Is it unrealistic to think it's going to be that much different, or even more changed, 10 years from now?
"We went for so many years without other brands, and now we're seeing what's happening with the excellent job Toyota is doing," said Weiss. "I think it's very healthy to have a number of brands competitors can go to. As for other brands in NASCAR, I think the automotive sector is going to go through some amazing changes in the next couple of years as China gets into the automotive business. Ultimately, I think it's going to be less likely that everything is going to be under the Ford, Chevy, and Dodge brands. It could be Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, or other brands as well. Given how much is going to change in the automobile industry, I'm sure we'll see changes as well."
Cultivating oval track facilities overseas might be the determining factor as to whether or not NASCAR will make a big splash internationally. Just as Americans find road racing less than exciting at times, the international market, especially some European fans, see oval track racing as monotonous to watch and easy to master. That, however, doesn't mean oval racing wouldn't fly overseas.
"There is [a] new Italian generation of racing fans who really want to see Nextel Cup racing in Italy," stated Gabbiani. "The main problem is we don't have an oval track. I hope we can build one in the future."
In the end, it might just come down to different strokes for different folks. Whatever the outcome, look for NASCAR to be a part of it as it speeds toward the green flag of the international motorsports marketing race.
"The best thing we can do is be patient," said Weiss. "We're exploring all opportunities that come up and, at the same time, not [changing] what isn't broken. We're confident we can develop our brand internationally. We just don't know how successful that can be just yet."