MIAMI — This is not your father’s NASCAR.
A luxury condominium tower on tony Brickell Avenue, overlooking the Miami River, lit by swirling spotlights. A red carpet overrun by starlets and television reporters, all of them dressed in short skirts and stiletto heels, to the point where it’s difficult to tell which is which. A fashion show runway jutting into a sparkling swimming pool, ceviche and scallops on the half-shell, Spanish flowing as freely as the vodka and gin. It’s difficult to imagine men like David Pearson and Cale Yarborough in an atmosphere so glamorous, so aristocratic, and so exotic all at the same time.
But not Juan Montoya. This is his event, a charity gala put on by the driver and his wife, Connie, to benefit a number of causes in his native Colombia. And this is his city; his multi-story residence is in a similar condo tower not too far away. The entire evening is a merging of the two halves of Montoya’s life — on one side, drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, on the other, Latin singers and actresses and beauty queens. On the track, he’s one of 42 others chasing Jimmie Johnson for the Cup title. But in Miami, Montoya is a rock star. You get the distinct impression that in South Florida, NASCAR’s most popular driver may not be who you think.
That certainly appeared to be the case earlier in the day, when Montoya appeared at a press event in nearby Coral Gables to kick off NASCAR’s championship weekend. The horde of media crowding around Montoya was downright Dale Jr.-esque, dwarfing even those querying title contenders Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin. NASCAR had hoped that Montoya’s arrival would help the series tap into the Hispanic market. Judging by the attention he’s receiving this week, which concludes with the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the sport is getting its wish.
«Juan Pablo, I think he can be star here with his credentials,» NASCAR chairman Brian France said. «His aggressive style and his connection to the Hispanic population is very good for us, and I’ve always said that. The question is, is he good enough at this style racing to be a star? I think he is, but he’s got to prove that. I think he thinks he is. I think he’s done a lot to put his best foot forward this year.»
He certainly has behind the wheel of his No. 42 car — despite not winning this season, Montoya stands sixth in points, and can finish the year as high as third. But the greater strides may be those he has helped NASCAR make off the race track, and the interest he has sparked among the Latin community. It’s difficult to pin down; there are no obvious, hard numbers showing growth among certain ethnic groups. Anecdotal evidence, though, is everywhere. It’s not uncommon now to see Colombian flags at the race track. Montoya recently took part in a conference call exclusively for Colombian media. Telemundo, the popular Spanish-language television station, broadcast from his charity gala. A writer for El Tiempo, the nation’s largest newspaper, arrives in town Saturday.
And he’s not coming to talk to Johnson. For his part, Montoya seems willing to play the ambassador, as long his primary reason for coming to NASCAR is understood.
«If you can help NASCAR do it, why not? You’re going to help yourself,» Montoya said. «So, you know, I mean, it’s not a priority. My number one priority is to get the job done and run with the car and work for [team owner] Chip [Ganassi], do what you’ve got to do, like the normal driver thing. Outside of that, you know, in a way, you guys [in the media] have been trying to put like responsibility around it. You do what you can. But you’re not here for that. You know what I mean? I’m not racing NASCAR to create Hispanic awareness about it, you know? I race NASCAR because I want to kick everybody’s butt.»
And yet, in South Florida at least, he seems to have created something that’s become much bigger than himself. Montoya’s influence has been seen throughout the Cup tour since his arrival, to the point where chants of «Co-lom-bia!» emanated from the grandstands after he won his first race at Sonoma, Calif., in 2007. But his qualification for the Chase, and his metamorphosis into a legitimate threat for race wins, has added a legitimacy to his NASCAR endeavor that has further stoked interest throughout the Latin world. It all comes to a head in Miami, where an entire row of seats at the track media center is reserved for Spanish-speaking media members, and Montoya is a bigger draw than even the driver vying for an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship.
«We have made inroads in the Latin community over the years, through schools, though media, through our promotional efforts, our marketing efforts, our advertising. But nothing has worked better than Montoya being successful on the race track,» said Curtis Gray, president of the Homestead track. «We’re seeing the results of that. We’ll have more new fans here for this event than we’ve ever had at an event before, and I would attribute a lot of that to Montoya’s success on the track.»
Miami, with its multitude of Latin communities, has always been friendly territory to Montoya, even dating back to his Formula One days. His emigration to NASCAR spiked interest to the point where Homestead-Miami brought in overflow seating for his first race at the speedway, but the fervor cooled considerably as team chemistry issues and an adjustment to the heavier stock car led Montoya’s results to ebb. There was skepticism, even among the Latin community, as to whether he could succeed. Now, after a strong run to qualify for the Chase and an impressive showing in the first half of NASCAR’s playoff, those doubters are much more difficult to find.
«It’s great that the Latin community pays attention to what I’m doing,» Montoya said. «Internationally, they’re paying attention to NASCAR now because a lot of things I’ve done. I didn’t come to NASCAR to create that. I came to NASCAR because I wanted to race in NASCAR. It was a personal thing. It still is. Is it a pressure thing? No. It’s great that they pay attention. It’s like when I came to NASCAR, I’ll give an example, Colombia, they paid a little bit of attention, the results were not there, people stopped paying attention. Now everybody wants to come here. Everybody wants to watch the races. Everybody talks about it. It is what it is. They always like when we do well.»
Montoya, though, does his part. At the end of his weekly media conference — mandated of all drivers in the top 12 — Montoya regularly answers questions in his native tongue. Once he appeared on a Cup conference call, and a Miami-based Colombian radio station phoned in. Because of time constraints, only one question was allowed. So Montoya called them back afterward to continue the interview.
«While he says he’s reluctant to do it, once he’s is on the radio or on with TV stations, he almost gets sucked into it a little bit,» Gray said. «I think he enjoys the enthusiasm that the communities feel. So I think maybe what he’s saying to the press is one thing, I think what he’s actually doing out there is another thing.»
With his Latin heritage and Miami address, Montoya has become a focus of the Homestead track’s marketing initiatives. The speedway first unveiled a «Montoya package» for $142 — the latter two digits corresponding with the driver’s car number — that included a $100 race ticket, a free pre-race pit pass, and a $42 donation to Montoya’s Formula Smiles foundation, which constructs sports facilities for children in Colombia. Then during the Chase, the track offered a $100 ticket for $42 each Monday after Montoya finished in the top 10, which has been six times thus far. Those buyers were also offered a meet-and-greet with Montoya for additional $42 donation to his nonprofit.
«Our phones would ring off the hook,» Gray said. «I don’t know how many people are going to be at that meet-and-greet, but it’s going to be a big number.» Although he doesn’t know exactly what percentage of his crowd Sunday will be Hispanic — that will be analyzed after the race — the track president expects «almost an international soccer match atmosphere» for the event.
At Montoya’s charity gala, the atmosphere was something else entirely. Up on the pool deck, drivers like Gordon, Johnson, Kahne, Max Papis, Jarno Trulli and Reed Sorenson mingled with celebrities who would stop traffic anywhere in Latin America. The guy in the open-collared shirt and sunglasses? A famous singer, a Spanish-speaking motorsports journalist informs you. The tall, wispy woman in the skin-tight black dress? «A runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant,» he says. Shakira, the Colombian pop-music starlet, provides a videotaped message. The masters of ceremonies are hosts of television programs on Telemundo and its Spanish-language brethren, Univision.
Like all the other celebrities, Gordon and his wife, Ingrid, make their way down the red carpet, and are stopped often for interviews. The four-time champion has seen Montoya’s impact first-hand this week — he’s staying with a friend who has a Colombian co-worker, and there’s only one NASCAR driver she knows. It’s been something of a gradual transition; just as Montoya has sometimes struggled with the stock car, his fans have struggled to understand the nuances of a sport in which a top-10 finish is considered a good thing. His arrival in 2007 cracked the door, but his success this year flung it wide open.
«I think there are a lot of race fans in South America,» Gordon said. «I don’t know how much they’ve been following NASCAR. They’ve been following Formula One. Now, I think you get a little bit more South American influence with Nelson Piquet and Juan and a few more, and that will only increase the awareness in the Hispanic market.»
More than 700 guests attended the gala, which raised money for not only Montoya’s nonprofit but a host of other Colombian charities. Even so, it’s been a trying week — Montoya calls Miami races «a nightmare» because of the demands placed upon him, and he’s been trying to shake a fever that two days ago was at 101 degrees. «At home feeling like crap,» he wrote Thursday on his Twitter page.
But by Friday morning his condition had improved, and he recovered from an early spin in Cup practice to post the second-fastest time of the session. With every lap, he tries to win races and hearts and minds, all at the same time. Now if only he could make the same inroads in his own home.
«My son is actually a huge Kyle Busch fan,» he said, referring to 4-year-old Sebastian. «I’m not lying. If you go look by my motor home, I just got an M&Ms hood that I’m going to put in his room. I have to put a Target one up as well.»