Friday, September 16, 2005

More on NASCAR & Montreal & Canada

Hat tip to Ken Spencer of the #10 NAPA CASCAR Super Series team for this story....

It's by NASCAR beat reporter Mike Mulhern of the Winston Salem Journal.
My comments are immediately below, followed by the Mulhern piece.

There are a lot of strange signals coming out of Montreal right now.

Their ChampCar race was a mess. Some speculated that it was scuttled on purpose in the hopes that it would open a hole in the contract for '06, allowing the track to put on an IRL / NASCAR event in ChampCar's place.

In the wake of the August ChampCar race in Montreal, a report emerged that event promoter Normand Legault had a handshake agreement to put on an IRL race there next summer. I've had people tell me that people associated with the IRL said it was a done deal; everything but the signature.

Then, on Tuesday of this week, Legault's people said they would fulfil the final year of their agreement with ChampCar, in '06. Speculation is that ChampCar made it clear to Montreal that they did not share the promoter's vision that this year's little-attended Montreal event gave him wiggle room to get out of his contract for '06. It seems he came to see things their way, and the IRL plan was shelved.

NASCAR was also rumoured to be on the IRL card for Montreal '06. Only problem is... NASCAR didn't seem to know it. As anyone who has followed the process of them buying CASCAR knows, NASCAR moves at its own pace. You don't push them around. They call the tune.

Montreal appeared to be the lead horse for a race in '07, but who knows if Montreal's attempts to force their hand and grant an '06 date - through the media - will blow up in their faces altogether. Hello Mosport?

Friday, September 16, 2005
Sacre Bleu: NASCAR has its eye on Montreal, and the Hispanic market

By Mike Mulhern


On a clear day you can see Montreal.

OK, maybe only to the Canadian border, somewhere up there on the horizon, in the midst of all the hardwoods changing color.

But Montreal isn't far beyond, barely four hours north of Bob Bahre's New Hampshire International Speedway, site of the opening race of this season's Chase for the Championship this weekend.

This is one of NASCAR's northernmost outposts, and NASCAR's Robbie Weiss doesn't need his French, or any of the seven other languages he speaks, to get past the gate guards here.

But in stock-car racing's march to new markets, bilingual Montreal is the next inevitable goal.

NASCAR has been spending a considerable amount of time this year working Canada into its equation, and it has been helped in that effort by a number of Nextel Cup stars, such as Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Labonte and Kasey Kahne.

Brian Vickers is becoming accomplished in Spanish, and his web site even has Spanish translations, and with NASCAR's south-of-the-border push, more drivers may follow him into the language classroom.

Now it looks as if French might be next on the agenda.

A NASCAR race over Montreal's Gilles Villeneuve Formula One course would be the most visible aspect of the NASCAR plan, the bigger goal is to incorporate the Canadian market - from Montreal and Toronto in the east out to Calgary and Vancouver in the west - into the sport's growing portfolio.

And brewer Molson, which just bought Coors, appears the likely linchpin, given Molson's long-running motorsports sponsorships, which go back to Canadian Earl Ross' win at Martinsville in 1974.

Weiss, as the head of NASCAR's foreign affairs department, works out of NASCAR's downtown Los Angeles office, running a tiny four-man shop but with tentacles that stretch around the world.

Right now, Weiss is more interested in expanding NASCAR's still-unsettled beachhead in the Hispanic market than in hootin' and hollerin' about the Canadian frontier. Canadians already "get it," as anyone in Daytona in February for SpeedWeeks can attest.

"I get Canadian TV at home and the newspapers, and people know, whether it's Formula One or Champ Car or whatever, Canadian races are some of the best promoted, best attended, most enjoyable races," Weiss said. "Canadians have a passion for racing."

Yet, while the June Formula One drew 100,000-plus to Montreal, the August Indy-car race drew about 40,000. That has given rise to speculation that Champ Car officials, who own the lease on the August 2006 weekend, and promoter Normand Legault might be willing to make a deal with NASCAR, which assuredly would bring in 100,000-plus.

So when will the Busch and Truck schedules come out? "I'd like to know that too, because I've got TV partners all over the world asking me," Weiss says with a laugh.

Weiss certainly doesn't want to get drawn into the political games, which NASCAR's George Pyne is handling.

"There are no new real developments on our end yet," Weiss says of Montreal or other options. "We remain committed to the Canadian market and believe that longterm there may be opportunities. But we have nothing at the moment about a specific (NASCAR) series or market that we are in detailed discussions on."

Does that mean negotiations have hit a snag?

"People forget we're busy, we've got a lot of things going on," Weiss said. "And it takes time to figure it out and do it right.

"We learned a lot of positive things out of Mexico City, and we can take those lessons and move forward. We're on the ground with our office up there (in Canada), and we've had a great year overall in general.

"In due time, we'll have some things to talk about, but we're just not there yet. But it's not because there have been challenges or we've found out something to be different. It's just that maybe it's not happening as quickly as some had anticipated."

Indeed, the current international push by NASCAR the past few weeks and on into the fall is the Hispanic initiative. And that is a daunting task.

"There is a lot of work to be done, and no one can claim victory, by any means," Weiss says of NASCAR's Hispanic program, which is so far focused on the Busch series. "But in a very short period of time you have seen that we launched the NASCAR-Mexico marketing initiative last August and had the Busch race this March.

"The developments that have been made in reaching out to connect with the U.S. Hispanic market have been quite significant in just 12 months. At Fontana we had Adrian (Fernandez), Michel Jordain and Carlos Contreros, and hopefully that translates into a larger audience, more people in the stands, and greater awareness and interest among fans and sponsors."

However Jordain's team has struggled with sponsorship and even had to sit him out this year for lack of funds, and Jordain himself has struggled at the wheel. And Contreros, although he has been around a long time, still doesn't have a solid base of NASCAR operations.

Fernandez, on the other hand, has the powerful Rick Hendrick operation behind him, and the awesome marketing support of Lowe's.

Still, the effort fizzled for the Labor Day race in Fontana, Calif.

"Would I judge from the Fontana weekend? No," Weiss said. "But listen, if we have gotten this far in 10 or 12 months, what does the future hold?

"You have to believe that growth of the Hispanic market will be positive for the industry, for teams, for tracks, for sponsors, and for broadcast partners. We always felt if we could make the sport relevant in Mexico, and it becomes part of the sports culture, and we transform some of the success other properties have had down there, it would have a very measurable long-term impact on our growth in the U.S.

"When you have such a significant percentage of the U.S. population with an affinity for motorsports and you have events in the markets they're in and you think they can develop drivers, if you can tap into that, it's a good place to grow."

"I wouldn't judge everything off just one weekend," Weiss said of Fontana. "You have to believe it's having an impact, so look at it three to five years from now and measure the impact. I think it's fantastic to have three solid teams and drivers participating that weren't there last year."

However, the Hispanic project is more than just putting Hispanic drivers in cars. It's also about getting international sponsorships, by persuading large corporations to invest advertising dollars in NASCAR's vision. Three obviously key companies are Ford, General Motors and Dodge. But Detroit's car manufacturers have their own problems right now.

Then again, with 106 Fortune 500 companies already invested in NASCAR racing, the NASCAR and the France family should be able to find some leverage.

So what is the outlook for NASCAR internationally? How are things shaping up elsewhere?

"The property continues to develop very well outside the U.S.," Weiss said. "We just launched with Fox that all truck, Busch and Cup events will be broadcast live on Fox affiliates throughout Latin America, South America and Central America. That wasn't the case last year, and that wouldn't be the case without the event in Mexico City, without Adrian Fernandez, without the Mexican stock-car series.

"There is a lot of momentum here.

"And we have had some very interesting new deals this year in markets like India and places throughout the world where you wouldn't traditionally think we would have any marketability for our product.

"I look at this and say it proves we have a tremendous product. The level of competition, the quality of the broadcasts, it is a first-class sports entertainment property. When people touch it for the first time ..."

Weiss' office is only four-strong, "but we also have an office in Canada with people on the ground who eat and sleep NASCAR.

"And the same in Mexico, where we probably have 10 people focused full-time on NASCAR, though they might not all be working directly for NASCAR."

• Mike Mulhern can be reached at

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