In the fast lane, NASCAR draws plenty of converts

Once considered a second-class circuit compared with Indy car drivers and Formula 1, NASCAR has become a hot ticket for racers from rival circuits.

Gentlemen, show us your passports. The current National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing season ends next Sunday with familiar names such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson leading the way. Looming in the rearview mirror, though, is a growing roster of international drivers eager to tap into stock-car racing's popularity across the country.

Once considered a second-class circuit compared with IndyCar and Formula 1, NASCAR has become a hot ticket for racers from rival circuits.

"They used to look at us as a bunch of redneck taxicab drivers," says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR season champion who now serves as an analyst for the Fox network. "Now the shoe's on the other foot. They're racing under the radar while NASCAR races in front of packed houses."

Motor-sports historians will cite past NASCAR forays by the likes of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti as evidence that everything old is new again. There is a major difference this time around, however: Unlike Foyt and Andretti, the current crop of curiosity seekers from rival circuits isn't dabbling in a few races.They're in it for the entire season.

Experts say the reason is obvious.

"NASCAR is where the big money is," says Zak Brown, CEO at Just Marketing, a firm that helps pair corporate sponsors with race teams. "After you've won the Indy 500 or whatever, the question becomes, 'what's next?' The answer for some of these drivers is NASCAR."

The shift began late last season with the defection of erstwhile Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya, whose résumé also includes a win in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. Montoya, a Colombian, left the jet-setting F1 circuit in favor of a NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi Racing.

The driver dabbled in lower-level NASCAR series and swapped paint with the big boys during a tune-up stint with Ganassi during the waning days of the 2006 season. This year he began his rookie campaign in earnest with the season-opening Daytona 500.

Since then, Montoya has notched one win while ranking in the middle of the pack in the season points standings. By most accounts, he has turned in a solid debut.

Now, Montoya has plenty of admirers hoping to find similar success. One of them is reigning Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champ Dario Franchitti, known to casual fans as Mr. Ashley Judd.

A native Scotsman of Italian descent, Franchitti recently announced plans to become Montoya's teammate with Chip Ganassi Racing in time for the 2008 season. He has spent the past few weeks testing stock cars and getting ready for a full-time stock-car gig next year.

Others who have made similar leaps – or plan to soon – include Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, and Sam Hornish Jr.

Carpentier signed with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in October after past racing tenures in both the IndyCar and Champ Car series. Villeneuve, who has joined Bill Davis Racing, is a former season champion in F1 and Indy cars. Hornish, who has signed with Roger Penske's NASCAR entry, also has an Indy 500 win to his credit.

"To come into NASCAR is a big step for me," Franchitti says. "It's a big change. Hopefully, we're going to help grow the sport internationally."

Those words are music to the ears of NASCAR executives, who hope to broaden the pool of potential corporate sponsors and gain overseas viewers with the expat arrivistes.

When Montoya showed up at Daytona in February, media crews from Russia, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and Italy – as well as Colombia – were on-hand to chronicle his move from F1 to stock cars. Sponsors have seen similar interest, with Montoya's main backer, Texaco/Havoline, unleashing major advertising campaigns in Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Colombia in recent months. The Ganassi Racing team website now attracts visitors from 150 countries, compared with seven before Montoya arrived.

Convincing traditional fans may be more difficult. As Zak Brown, the marketing executive, puts it, "Most NASCAR fans don't like open-wheel racing. Plus, some of these guys are going to struggle a little bit. Montoya is one of the best drivers in the world and he's been 20th in points most of the year."

Darrell Waltrip offers an even blunter assessment: "To make a difference, you can't just be in the show. You've got to run up front."

Or do you? Executives say the benefits of NASCAR's nascent Foreign Legion more than offset any potential pitfalls.

"Montoya is getting us tremendous publicity in Europe and the Hispanic countries," says Humpy Wheeler, a longtime NASCAR racing promoter. "With Franchitti, we get the Italians and the Scots, plus all the movie fans. It's magnificent for our sport."

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