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: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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