NASCAR Woos Hispanic Fans

NASCAR, the traditionally white, Southern racing circuit, is trying to draw a Hispanic audience. The campaign is keyed to the arrival of Colombian Formula 1 racer Juan Pablo Montoya to the NASCAR circuit.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NASCAR is working to expand beyond its roots. Stock car racing dates back to Appalachian bootleggers, who made sport out of outracing the cops, and that southern white heritage still defines much of the fan base. But maybe not the fans of this NASCAR broadcast.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: NASCAR is courting Hispanics. ESPN Spanish language channel began airing radio updates this month and will televise races next year.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on an uphill race to reach a new audience.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Latino marketer Juan Tornoe moved from Guatemala to Texas four years ago and recently checked out a NASCAR race in Fort Worth. He says being in those stands was the first time in this country he actually felt like a minority.

Mr. JUAN TORNOE (Latino Marketer): It was very, very white. I joked that I would have been a dream job for a sharpshooter, I would have been easy to spot.

LUDDEN: Still, Tornoe saw the potential. Sure, he says, some of the crowds waved considerate flags that would certainly turnoff African-Americans, but as a Hispanic they didn't bother him. And Tornoe thinks the typical NASCAR fan has a lot in common with the typical Latino immigrant.

Mr. TORNOE: The sense of family, the morally conservative values. There's so many common values among those two crowds, only that the people from NASCAR have not capitalized on that fact.

LUDDEN: NASCAR estimates Hispanics are nine percent of its fan base. To attract more, spokesman Ramsey Poston says the association's been handing out bilingual fan guide at Latino festivals and helping recruit minority drivers. Its Busch Series recently added an annual race in Mexico City.

Mr. RAMSEY POSTON (Spokesman, NASCAR): Once there's car that gets roaring and you hear the engines of 43 different cars coming by, it doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian. There is just great excitement to that. So that's the advantage we have. We get to sell that.

LUDDEN: Of course, it's a tough sell if someone's never heard of NASCAR.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: In a largely Mexican neighborhood outside Washington D.C. person after person said they'd never even seen a car race. But 21-year-old Juan Carlos Valderez(ph) had caught something on the news about a Latino race car driver.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS VALDEREZ (Washington D.C. resident): (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: The man he heard of is Juan Pablo Montoya, a dashing young Colombian who recently left Formula 1 for NASCAR. And NASCAR has high hopes they'll pull in more Hispanic fans.

Jon Ackley teaches a course on the business of NASCAR at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Mr. JON ACKLEY (Virginia Commonwealth University): What you may see and my colleague and I have both talked about this, are we going to see something's written on the car in Spanish.

LUDDEN: And how do you think that would go over with the traditional core fan base?

Mr. ACKLEY: You know, I think or you'd find some of the areas whether there might be some backlash and you'll find some areas where, hey, that's the way it is.

LUDDEN: Juan Tornoe, the Latino marketer, is scouting for sponsors, who might insist on reaching out to the Hispanic community.

Mr. TORNOE: I said, okay, Mr. Team. I want to sponsor your car and here's the money, but part of the deal is I want a percentage of your crew to be Hispanic.

LUDDEN: Then TV viewers could see Latino mechanics servicing those stock cars and that's a role model, Tornoe says, could really win fans and even change careers.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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