The most obvious measure so far of NASCAR's "Drive For Diversity" is a lot more women watching from the grandstands and on television.
But the complexion of the Nextel Cup field could be on the brink of a radical makeover, thanks to the arrival of female stars like Erin
Crocker and a brace of foreign-born drivers who have their sights set
on a career in American stock car racing.
In more than 50 years of NASCAR-sanctioned racing, the only non-
American to win a Nextel Cup-level race was Canadian Earl Ross, who won at Martinsville Speedway in September 1974. Ross notched 10 top-10 finishes that year on the way to Grand National Rookie of the Year honors, but he was unable to sustain an American stock car
career. Nor has any other foreigner in the ensuing three decades.
But that scenario could change in the next couple of years.
One foreign arrival is certain: Ford has committed to bringing two-time Australian V-8 Supercar champion Marcos Ambrose to America next year.
"He'll be part of our NASCAR mix in 2006 and beyond," said Dan
Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology. "He tested extremely well
and our Ford Racing NASCAR program manager, Ben Leslie, who oversaw the test, was very impressed with Marcos' ability behind the wheel, his understanding of the vehicle and his technical feedback. His lap times were right on the money and Ben feels Marcos is ready to go
right now. We are evaluating a number of options for Marcos in NASCAR and will only commit him to one of our tier one, top-level programs."
It won't be a total culture shock for the 29-year-old Aussie: He
raced Formula Fords in America in the late '90s before returning to
his homeland to restore V-8 Supercar championship glory to Ford after a decade of domination by rival manufacturer Holden. Ambrose plans to move to North Carolina this winter, hopefully after wrapping up his third consecutive Aussie V-8 crown.
"It's a massive learning program for me with no guarantee of
success," Ambrose admitted. "But what greater challenge could there
be in world motorsport than to try to make it in NASCAR?"
A name more familiar to Americans -- longtime open-wheel front-runner
Adrian Fernandez -- is scheduled to follow up his one Busch Series
start in Mexico City with a handful of additional Busch races later
this year. Meanwhile, fellow Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr. hopes to
return full time to the Busch Series in 2006 after a partial season
Canadian Paul Tracy, who is Champ Car's most successful active driver with 30 race wins, can't hide his eagerness to make the move into NASCAR at the end of his open-wheel racing career. The 36-year-old's personality and driving style would fit well with NASCAR, and after recently testing for Richard Childress Racing, Tracy is viewed as a long shot for a Cup race seat in 2006 if NASCAR's Silly Season gets totally out of control.
Another Canadian, Ron Fellows, has come close to victory in his
occasional NASCAR starts. In recent years, NASCAR teams often
recruited road racers like Fellows, Tom Kendall and Dorsey Schroeder from sports cars or the Trans-Am Championship for the two road races on the Nextel Cup schedule. Now Klaus Graf, a 34-year-old German, hopes to parlay a Trans-Am championship into a stock car career.
Graf opened and closed his rookie Trans Am campaign with victories
and he added three more wins in between. He's had his sights set on
NASCAR for a couple of years. In 2004, he finished 17th in his
first Nextel Cup start at Infineon Raceway and third on his oval
debut in an ARCA 200-miler at Nashville Superspeedway.
Graf started seriously looking at NASCAR when he raced for Don Panoz's sportscar team from 1999-2001.
"Obviously it's very difficult for Europeans to break into, but
things have changed a little bit there and they are more open to an
international flavor with Toyota doing trucks now and things like
that," he remarked. "The Trans-Am name is still very good in the
United States and the car was a good step for me, kind of halfway
between a sports car and a stock car. I got a lot of response from
the NASCAR series because they follow guys like Boris Said and Ron
Fellows in the Trans-Am and Scott Pruett won the championship for
Rocketsports two years ago."
Although Graf was expected to shine in his road racing outing at
Infineon, he says he enjoyed the experience of getting to grips with
ovals -- something he'll have to specialize in if he successfully
makes the jump into the Busch Series for 2006.
"Ken Schrader gave me the basic instruction of how to drive an oval,"
Graf recalled. "You can do a lot of things wrong and you can't put
together a lap time if you don't drive right. Obviously there are a
big variety of ovals so I did the Talledega ARCA race to get some
superspeedway experience and a short track at Martinsville. It's just
a matter of getting experience."
Graf thinks that with Danica Patrick grabbing the headlines in open-
wheel racing and NASCAR on a "Drive for Diversity," the time is right for a foreign driver to break into the stock car ranks full-time.
"In general I think the mentality has changed a little bit in
NASCAR," he said. "At the end of the day, people like Rick Hendrick
or Richard Childress or Jack Roush are racers and they realize,
'These guys can do it.' You have to have the right package,
obviously, and you can't expect them to take on a risk when there are
lots of American drivers trying to come into the series when there
are all these development programs for those young kids.
"But if you race well and you establish yourself, you can make a
point and get a good place," Graf added. "You have to basically work
your way in yourself and pay your dues. The way the whole schedule is set up, it is hard for rookies to do well immediately, but that's
what NASCAR wants. They don't want anyone to come in and show the regulars how it's done. That's fair enough. NASCAR does a really good job of keeping their family intact and making sure everyone is happy."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.