Report: Could NASCAR seriously expand internationally?

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A report from USA Today’s Nate Ryan is a good one to read in full, summing up the prospects of NASCAR’s international aspirations. NASCAR’s senior vp Steve O’Donnell told Ryan the sanctioning body is “approached every day” with opportunities to race in other countries.

Some of the countries mooted are Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, Brazil and Japan. NASCAR has already had exhibition races in Japan in the 1990s, and points races for its Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series divisions in Mexico and Canada. Additionally, the report notes that the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series will race in Germany, England, Spain and France in 2014.

All of the above countries hold a round of the Formula One World Championship except for France and Mexico; Russia’s inaugural GP will premiere in 2014 as part of a banner year for that country. It hosts the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, and that’s going to do the most to expose modern day Russia to the world stage.

But the difference NASCAR wants to achieve, per this report, is that it doesn’t want to merely show up and collect an appearance fee. In O’Donnell’s words to Ryan, “We want to be international but build from the grass roots. The goal is not to become Formula One and collect a fee and leave.”

The goal, ultimately, is to attract more foreign drivers to NASCAR over F1. And O’Donnell’s comment is also a big statement because it speaks to NASCAR wanting to export its brand and become a part of other countries, rather than merely a stop on a circus, as F1 is in the countries it chooses to visit.

NASCAR has the American motorsports market cornered. F1’s fan base in America is smart, passionate, dedicated … but still a fraction of NASCAR’s. IndyCar – for all its upsides, including an excellent on-track product – perpetually underachieves and deals way too frequently with political wrangling. Sports car racing, at its core, is simply too confusing to grow beyond the ultra hardcore, niche market it already has in play.

When it comes to motorsports around the world, F1 is the pinnacle and will remain the pinnacle based on the sheer volume of coverage it receives. NASCAR, worldwide, is a mere foot note. And if it truly wants to grow internationally, it needs to expose its brand and build drivers and fans in other countries.

So what NASCAR is saying in this story, to me at least, is, “We’ve conquered the U.S. and now, a la an NFL, we are determined to grow our brand globally.”

It’s not something that can be done in a day. The NFL is king of the American sports market, yet NFL Europe has already gone under and it’s taken a handful of years to begin to export the brand globally thanks to the regular season games in Wembley Stadium in London. And no, having the Jacksonville Jaguars there isn’t the best way to do so.

NASCAR is a uniquely American sport and one that probably could, I’d argue, almost be better served by trying to return more to its Southern roots rather than try to expand its brand globally. More short track races, dirt races, or races in Southern markets could do more to placate and grow the fan base domestically.

But that’s a topic for another day. Assuming NASCAR forges ahead with these aspirations, it will be very interesting to watch whether it can sink or swim as part of a global sports market, and who chooses to eat it up.

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

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