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El Sentinel

Hispanics Find Road To NASCAR

By Denise-Marie Balona

May 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002
El Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

MIAMI -- A trip to his Mexican tobacco farm opened Rudy Rodriguez's eyes to how popular NASCAR really is. A worker approached Rodriguez and offered him almost a month's salary for his sweatshirt, because it featured North American stock-car racing star Jeff Gordon.

Rodriguez simply gave the man the shirt, but took home this invaluable insight: The world is ripe with Hispanic race fans, but the population remains largely untapped. It was a revelation that led to one of his biggest business ventures, according to the story his cousin and business partner Mike Vazquez likes to tell.

Rodriguez and Vazquez of Miami have teamed up to bring together this nation's fastest-growing minority group and its fastest-growing spectator sport. The result is HRT (Hispanic Racing Team) Motorsports, NASCAR's first Hispanic-owned team headed by Hispanic drivers and backed by an Hispanic sponsor. Although HRT will compete this month in North Carolina, its Hispanic drivers won't compete until July, Vazquez said.

HRT has two well-known faces in its driver spotlight: Colombian-born brothers, Roberto and Jaime Guerrero. Roberto Guerrero, a Californian who's new to racing the heavier stock cars, is an accomplished open-wheel driver. Jaime Guerrero is the six-time champion of Bogota's annual endurance race and has competed in England and Mexico.

Vasquez believes more Hispanics would follow NASCAR events if there were more Hispanic drivers - especially since many speedways are located in cities with growing Hispanic communities. NASCAR, based in Daytona Beach, has long been dominated by white men mostly from the Southeast. Its sole Latin American stock-car driver is Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi, who began racing last year, NASCAR officials said.

Hispanic Carlos Contreras races in the NASCAR truck circuit.

"A lot of people think it's impossible, you can't break into that Southern sport," Vazquez said. "I think the future challenge will be all about time. If you're fast, you're going to be loved by fans, and not just Hispanics."

George Pyne, NASCAR's senior vice president, praised the team's efforts to promote the sport worldwide. Already, NASCAR has 75 million U.S. fans, according to an independent NASCAR study, and its competitions are broadcast in 91 countries. Officials don't have a global fan total, and they aren't sure how many U.S. fans are Hispanic because they don't track race or ethnicity.

"We think it's absolutely terrific," Pyne said. "We already know that Carlos Contreras is having an impact on awareness in the Hispanic community."

HRT hasn't had it easy, though. Plans for the team were introduced in 1999, but it wasn't until last month that it finally landed a Hispanic sponsor, Panama-based Ciclon Energy Drink.

And although Jaime Guerrero tried to enter a Busch series race in 1999, NASCAR wouldn't let him participate because he didn't have enough U.S. experience. So, HRT had to use a non-Hispanic driver, as it will do later this month in North Carolina. In 2000, Roberto Guerrero tried to enter another race, but mechanical problems kept him from qualifying.

Roberto Guerrero says this year will be different. After years of training, he and his blue, No. 09 Chevrolet will compete in many of the races left of this season, which ends in November. Then, by 2003, when he will participate in all 34 Busch series races, he'll have had plenty of practice. Jaime Guerrero also will compete if officials can find a sponsor for his vehicle.

"The thing that will be the biggest difficulty is the actual racing," said Roberto Guerrero. "One thing is testing and making them go faster. But, the challenge is having 40 other cars out there with you."

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