ESPN The Magazine: Good Wheel Ambassador

He crosses Benito Juarez International Airport like a movie cowboy, square-jawed and thick, the NASCAR logo emblazoned on his chest. As he steps into a vast, open-air hall cluttered with storefronts, hard-sell cabbies and squeaking kids, Chad Little stands tall in the 80-degree April heat and scans the crowd for a friendly face.

His driver greets him in broken English, leading him to a silver sedan parked outside. First stop: Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, Mexico City's landmark road course. Little takes a few inspection laps on an improvised mile-long oval, noting safety hazards that need attention before Sunday's race. With three days left, there's still work to be done.

The former Cup driver is helping Mexico's own stock car series grow up fast. Desafio Corona entered a conditional licensing agreement with NASCAR in 2004, including the right to purchase Little's consulting services. Attending all 14 races each season, he acts as diplomat, mentor and safety guru, preparing the series to carry his employer's good name. "It's not NASCAR Mexico yet," he says. Before 2006 is over, it will be.

Little's bosses hope the NASCAR Mexico Corona series will help attract Mexican-Americans to the überbrand in the United States and provide a model for global expansion. NASCAR CEO Brian France has already announced his desire to brand the series in China and Europe. But can a deeply American sport overcome mass resentment about U.S. border policies, the war in Iraq and big-box chains like Wal-Mart and Home Depot? A journey through Mexico City reveals the hurdles -- and the hope.

Jorge Salinas emerges from a tiny garage, almost a built-in front porch. For nine years, the 23-year-old owner of Salinas Racing has juiced clients' cars with junkyard parts. "Gringos like to feel muscle, the pull off the line," he says in Spanish, popping the hood of his '82 Dodge Aries. "In Mexico, we're the same."

Salinas thanks America for rock music and the V-8 engine but doubts the respect is mutual. "You are our culture," he says. "You are our neighbors, like it or not. We are your labor, your manpower. You don't want to pick beans from dawn to dusk. And yet you throw us out."

Stock car racing feels like more of the same, unless a Mexican driver can beat the gringos on their own tracks. "Would you watch a sport where your guy never wins?" he asks, ticking off the spotty record of Mexican drivers who've struggled in Craftsman and Busch races. "Besides, races are for people with money." He glances at the fading daylight and crawls under the next car.

Night falls gently in Condesa, an urbane district west of old downtown. This is where the pretty people dine. In a softly lit restaurant, Little shakes hands, All-American in corporate khakis and a blue oxford. The ambassador is on the clock. He doesn't speak Spanish, but two decades behind the wheel -- and 60 top-10 finishes in Cup and Busch -- make Little a legitimate envoy. "When
I hung up the helmet, I wanted to stay in the industry," he says. He co-owned a car, worked a TV gig and jumped at this job in 2004. Here in Mexico, his is the face of NASCAR.

Little smiles and nods to a blur of suits and names, mostly Mexican executives in U.S.-based multinational corporations. Though Mexico has a long history of open-wheel racing, few in this crowd understand stock cars. But they know the power of a megabrand. In 2005, the Busch Series drew 94,229 fans to the Autódromo for NASCAR's first-ever points race outside the States -- impressive, though still a far cry from the 221,011 fans Champ Car reported in 2003.

A camera flashes. Five models in yellow tops pose with customers who just bought Coronas and scored free tickets to Sunday's race. Admission costs 150 pesos, about $14, but almost 70 percent of Desafio Corona tickets are giveaways, part of the effort to educate fans. "We have a huge car culture," says Edmundo Béjar, owner of Orbe Motorsports. "Eventually, we will have a huge motorsports culture." On the screen of his cell phone, Béjar shows two cars sandwiching his white 43 car, sending it end-over-end. His driver walks away, so the wreck has become marketable. As Béjar says later, "Mexicans love the rubbing, the trading paint … when they spin, even when they crash."

The fiesta goes on, but Little drops out after dinner. A short ride takes him to his hotel in the Polanco district, where he's one of many foreign dignitaries. You don't take chances in a country that recently passed Colombia and Brazil as the world leader in kidnapping for ransom. "I like to stay where I can see a Starbucks," Little says. "It makes me feel safe."

Green light: The air explodes with screaming tires as a modified '84 Rabbit burns the quarter-mile. The scoreboard flashes 15.2 seconds. Just 150 pesos buys amateurs an all-night pass at a makeshift drag strip on a blocked-off street in the industrial suburb of Tlalnepantla. Fathers and wannabe racers gulp cervezas in Little League bleachers. The girlfriend of the guy in the Rabbit watches over his street tires until the party ends, at 1 a.m.

The street is empty an hour later, when a box-shouldered hombre named Carlos muscles in on an interview. "This isn't racing," he says. "My thing is underground street racing. Those guys risk it all. They'll drive into a wall." That's why he likes NASCAR. "I love it when they drive like cabrones."
Carlos, a 23-year-old father, earns $160 a month (plus his boss' Desafio Corona tickets) working in a warehouse. He's dead set on getting to Houston, but he has read about gringo vigilantes hunting mojados in Arizona. Maybe he can return the favor. He mimes revenge with an imaginary handgun and sizes up the reporter's ransom value. "You're an American from a magazine, and you can give the money," he says, then adds in English, "Mo … ney …"

In an air-conditioned room in the organizers' trailer, Little pitches a potential sponsor on speakerphone: How about those safety lights? Corona series director Enrique Contreras listens, getting a firsthand lesson in NASCAR sponsorship methods. The open-wheel legend (and brother of Busch driver Carlos Contreras) founded the series in 2002 with four sponsors and 14 pickup trucks, using NASCAR as a model. "They showed us how to race, how to commercialize," he says, from beneath a bushy black mustache. A contract formalized that relationship in 2004, granting use of the brand pending certain prerequisites. Little's services were offered to move things along.

Good news: An American voice offers a modern red-yellow-green light system in exchange for equal value in exposure. Little promises a written proposal. Maybe the flagman stand? Contreras shares a nod with Edgar Matute, business director for the series. Even more than NASCAR, Desafio Corona relies on sponsors, not gate receipts, to survive; race tickets and official merchandise are luxury purchases. Having landed 30 sponsors already (35 by season's end), Matute and Contreras expect a windfall with NASCAR's endorsement.

But Little's focus is on safety and competition standards, so he jogs across the paddock Saturday afternoon toward a crowd chattering around a mangled stock car. Half the shell is gone, the right front wheel jammed into the engine compartment. "We usually don't have a lot of accidents in practice," he tells Contreras. Today there were three. Still, the driver's compartment is intact, and the rest can be rebuilt. NASCAR's modifications -- a wider roll cage, in this instance -- have already saved lives.

Rounding the track in a king-cab pickup, Little and Contreras find workers patching chipped asphalt on the sweeping second corner, a blind alley wrapped around the baseball stadium's rightfield bleachers. "This would be a great oval if it wasn't for all the BS in the middle," Little says. On the backstretch, Contreras points out flag stations where warnings pass in rapid sequence. "We don't need green lights," he says, always thinking of ways to save money. "Red and yellow will do."

Little shrugs. "NASCAR's not going to change everything overnight," he says later. "We consult to them. This is their series."

Cruising down Paseo de la Reforma in an immaculate '92 Camaro, Julio Rodríguez remembers losing his first drag race here in the late '80s. The blond, baby-faced kid learned two lessons that day:
1) A stock Mustang can't best a beater with nitro; and 2) even an unmodified Mustang can lose the cops. Now 36, the two-time Mexican pro-stock drag racing champ is negotiating the leap to the NHRA. Tonight, he searches the city's dark corners for the next generation of drag racers. "The oval is gringo," he says, almost disdainfully. "We all learned to race in the streets."

At his garage, Rodríguez makes high-end performance modifications for the rich and famous, from politicians to pop stars. "The Mexican character is highly competitive," he says. "And the easiest way to compete is from one traffic light to the next."

Looming over a small lectern, Contreras clears his baritone's throat, bringing a hush to the crowded white conference room. The ambassador sits in silence at his side. Race-day re-education begins: a drivers' meeting where six dozen experienced racers and crew chiefs are indoctrinated with the rules and vocabulary of a new sport. "Your spotters need to learn the language of the oval," Contreras says, promising harsh consequences for aggressive driving. "If you think you can drive like you would in a formula car, there's no room for you here."

Tense murmurs ripple through the audience.

One driver protests the vagueness of the threat. Contreras starts to respond, then stops when Little lays a hand on his shoulder and whispers something. Contreras saves his comments for a private chat, but the interruption strikes a dissonant chord, not unlike the editorial cartoons that portrayed Vicente Fox as a puppet of the Bush administration.

NASCAR is bringing experience and credibility to the series, but also higher costs and rising fears of a takeover. "They're trying to follow everything NASCAR does," driver Rogelio Lopez (the eventual series champ) says later at the Telmex team garage. He fears that an influx of American ownership will push out his smaller Mexican competitors. FitzContreras Racing already runs two cars, and former Busch owner Charley Strickland is scouting the series today.

Antonio Olguín wants more from NASCAR. "They should connect more to understand the Mexican character," says FitzContreras' former crew chief, who worked in the Busch and Craftsman Truck series and now owns a Corona team. It would help to have enough Chad Littles to get hands-on with owners, crew chiefs and drivers. Spanish classes -- or a paid interpreter -- wouldn't hurt.

In an aging neighborhood of low, attached houses, a '69 Cobra GT shines blood red in the shadow of cinder block walls tagged with gang signs and embedded with shards of glass for security. Wide tires and broad racing stripes speak of a better life. The car's owner approaches, a medallion glimmering against his chest: Santa Muerte, the uncanonized saint of thieves and criminals. Silently, the man caresses the fender. The body is clean -- no word on the title.

Arturo is a 28-year-old public transportation entrepreneur. In other words, he painted a VW van green, lowered it, put black lights on the undercarriage and now uses it as a bus. But the Shelby represents something else. "This car is the American dream," Arturo says. He may disagree with U.S. policies, but he loves the nation's ideals -- like freedom, unity, the V-8. "That's why I like NASCAR. It's muscle cars on a track."

Reggaeton rocks the crowded race-day paddock. Shaded booths sell 32-ounce Coronas, sunglasses and knockoff merchandise featuring "Goodrinch Racing" and Corona T-shirts sporting the Budweiser crown. (Series honchos promise to end that practice this year.) Bikini girls pitch their brands, and strippers from Exxxess Men's Club sign risqué calendars. Four flights up, in the control booth, Little needs no translation as the loudspeakers blare -- ¡Caballeros, arranquen sus motores! -- and engines erupt. Frequent lead changes exhilarate the 13,800 fans, the most ever for the series (15,000 will attend the final race of the season). When the first yellow flag comes out, the VIP section pours inside to see the TV replay.

Watching from pit road, Strickland decides to form a team with his American driver, Blake Mallory. Reasonable costs and the absence of dynastic families keep the series fun. "It's like you're putting in the preparation to go to the local dirt track," Strickland drawls. Squeezed from the Busch Series by changes in NASCAR's franchise rules, the lean Texan sees Mexico as new ground for farm teams. By 2008, he hopes to lease multiple cars to young Americans seeking seat time. "Up there, I have to compete with
Wal-Mart and Budweiser," he says. "Give me a year down here, and I will be Budweiser."

At the checkered flag, Little eyes his stopwatch: 21 cars within 15 ticks. Close finishes mean good competition. His efforts are paying off. Maybe this can work—license a locally owned series, adapt it to NASCAR standards, then use it to market the brand. Already under way in Canada, the plan could sprout ovals from Beijing to Budapest.

Hours later, Little relaxes long enough to dispel a hot rumor: NASCAR wants to lose the strippers. Actually, the league and Desafio Corona have agreed to ban the calendars -- not the strippers -- and keep Exxxess as a sponsor. "They've got a good series down here," Little says. "We want to make it better. So we have to listen. Some things we do in the U.S. don't work in another culture. I don't want to change their world."

No, NASCAR just wants to expand its own.