Mexican drivers eye route to NASCAR

Adrian Fernandez gave NASCAR a brief try as his Indy car career was winding down. Now he's hopeful some young Mexican drivers get an opportunity in the stock car circuit. Rick Dole/Getty Images

NASCAR no longer stages a Nationwide Series race in Mexico, but a cultural shift from road racing to American-style oval competition is gradually taking place south of the U.S. border.

Rising young Mexican stars once looked to emulate national idols like the Rodriguez brothers (Ricardo and Pedro) in Formula One, or Adrian Fernandez in Indy cars. But these days, many of those aspiring racers set a career trajectory for NASCAR instead.

"In my days, NASCAR was probably nonexistent in Mexico," said Fernandez, who won 11 CART- and IRL-sanctioned Indy car races between 1996 and 2004 as well as the 2009 American Le Mans Series LMP2 championship.

"Road racing was the big thing for many, many years. Things have changed now, definitely."

NASCAR has been directly involved in supporting grassroots oval racing in Mexico since 1994, resulting in the construction of a half dozen racing facilities. While many include road course options -- including the top-notch Autodromo Miguel E. Abed in Puebla, which hosted a round of the World Touring Car Championship from 2005 to 2009 -- the clear emphasis in these new venues is on the oval.

The Mexican-based NASCAR Toyota Series is composed of 16 rounds staged on seven ovals and one road course. The lone American race is staged at Phoenix International Raceway.

NASCAR began its Drive for Diversity program in 2004, and creating a path to the top levels of American stock car racing for Hispanic drivers remains a key part of the initiative.

This year, NASCAR has partnered with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund to commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) with a new dollars-per-lap donation program featuring drivers Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Nelson Piquet Jr., German Quiroga, Miguel Paludo, Bryan Ortiz, Jack Madrid and Daniel Suarez. The funds will benefit Latino students pursuing an education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

While a handful of Mexicans have made occasional Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series starts -- generally as "road course ringers" at Sonoma or Watkins Glen -- Quiroga is the first product of Mexico's NASCAR feeder system to emerge with a full-time presence in America.

The 33-year-old from Mexico City began racing in Mexico's version of the Dodge Neon Challenge in 1996. He bounced around between sedan and Formula car racing, making it as far as Indy Lights, before concentrating in the stock-car-based Desafio Corona (Corona Challenge) in 2006.

After finishing second in the championship in 2007 and '08, Quiroga won the renamed NASCAR Toyota Series three consecutive years from 2009-11 before trying to latch on in the United States, where he drove a partial Camping World Truck Series schedule in 2012.

In 2013, Quiroga got his full-time break in the U.S. and landed a ride in the No. 77 Red Horse Racing Toyota. He's currently 15th in the Truck series standings, with a pair of third-place finishes at Texas and Pocono. He also became the first Mexican to earn a Truck series pole, at Iowa Speedway.

"It's getting better and better each time," Quiroga said. "I feel each weekend we have improved. My first year in the NASCAR Mexico Series was OK, but it started to change after my second year. I'm expecting to have that same rhythm in the Truck series, but just a little better.

"We're in the top 15 in points, and my goal is to get into the top 10 and challenge for the rookie of the year," he added.

A few decades ago, Quiroga's dream would have been to race Formula One or Indy cars. But F1 left the Mexican market in 1992, and despite Fernandez's star status, Indy car racing struggled to gain a loyal Mexican following despite running in Monterrey and Mexico City from 2001-07.

In fact, toward the end of his career, Fernandez's sponsors encouraged him to switch to NASCAR; he ran a few exploratory Nationwide Series races for Hendrick Motorsports but preferred to concentrate on sports cars with his own team, eventually competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Aston Martin.

"I tried a few [NASCAR] races in 2005, but I didn't want to commit to learning a new series at that stage of my career and do so many weekends of racing," he said.

Fernandez recently served as Mexican F1 driver Sergio Perez's manager and helped his countryman land a ride with the McLaren-Mercedes team. He's hopeful that the possible return of the Mexican Grand Prix to the F1 schedule will reinvigorate the road racing scene in his homeland.

"The NASCAR series is probably the most successful form of racing in Mexico right now," Fernandez said. "With 'Checo' [Perez] in Formula One, it's important to have a base of all types of racing, not just NASCAR. But at the same time, it's important to keep on the NASCAR side, because there is a strong Latino presence in America, which is good for the Mexican drivers, and it's important for NASCAR to have those drivers to market."

Fernandez said he is surprised that 10 years into the Drive for Diversity era, NASCAR still has not been able to create a top Hispanic personality.

Montoya's presence has certainly helped, but the Colombian was already well-known as an Indy car champion and a Formula One race winner before he elected to enter stock car competition.

"In my opinion, I think NASCAR hasn't done enough to bring up a proper Latin or Mexican driver," Fernandez said. "It's a huge thing missing from NASCAR, having a recognizable young Mexican driver. They have to treat it as an investment for the future. You can't expect a young driver to come in and be successful right away. You have to pave the way for them to get there.

"We had NASCAR racing in Mexico City with seven or eight Mexican drivers in the field, but it didn't have long-term impact because those drivers weren't racing in the top series in America, so people would forget about them."