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Montoya: Nascar's most important import

Forget the Toyotas in this Sunday's Daytona 500. Juan Pablo Montoya could be the key to help Nascar become more popular with hard-to-reach fans.

A weekly column by Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- The most important imports in the Daytona 500 Sunday are not the three Toyota Camrys that will be in the field for the first time. Instead it will be Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian-born rookie driver.

Montoya is a former Formula One and Indy car driver who won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and the Grand Prix of Monaco, the top Formula One race, in 2003.

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Juan Pablo Montoya could be a key to Nascar reaching both Hispanic and Formula One fans.
Juan Pablo Montoya could be a key to Nascar reaching both Hispanic and Formula One fans.

He has a chance to help Nascar break through to two key demographics where the growing sport still has had trouble winning fans -- Hispanics in the U.S. and overseas auto race fans in general.

Hispanic sports fans here have been slow to embrace auto racing. Last year's Daytona 500 was seen by an average of 11.3 percent of American households, but only 3 percent of U.S. Hispanic households, according to Nielsen Sports Marketing.

A survey of sports fans by Marketing Evaluations found that while 25 percent of sports fans who said they are familiar with auto racing list it as one of their favorite sports, only 9 percent of Hispanic sports fans familiar with the sport identify it as a favorite.

And while viewership numbers mean it's safe to assume that most English speaking U.S. racing fans are Nascar fans, that's not necessarily the case for the Spanish-speaking race fans.

The Web site for ESPN Deportes, the Spanish language unit of the U.S. sports leader, lists Nascar as the third choice among its menu of racing circuits, behind Formula One and the Indianapolis Racing League.

Because News Corp.'s (Charts) Fox has the rights for the Daytona through 2014, Nascar's most popular race won't even have a Spanish language broadcast here during that time.

But with Walt Disney's (Charts) ESPN and ABC units once again becoming a Nascar broadcaster this year, replacing General Electric's (Charts) NBC during the second half of the season, ESPN Deportes will be broadcasting those races as well. It also will show all 35 races of Nascar's Busch Series, the level of competition just below the sport's top circuit Nextel Cup.

And on March 4, ESPN Deportes' Spanish-language broadcast of the Busch series race from Mexico City, in which Montoya is set to compete, will air on ESPN's main network, the first time ESPN has carried the Spanish-language coverage of a sporting event on its flagship channel.

Chip Ganassi Racing, the team that Montoya is driving for, and for which he was formerly a driver on one of the Indy car circuits in 1999 and 2000, didn't even have a Spanish language version of its Web site until Montoya signed with them last July year with an eye towards racing for the Nextel Cup.

John Olguin, spokesman for Chip Ganassi Racing, said that the increased interest in the team isn't just from his Spanish speaking fans in Colombia or in the United States.

"He brings a worldwide appeal," said Olguin. "Our Web site has been visited by fans in well over 100 countries, and more than 40 percent of the traffic is coming from outside the U.S. It's Europe. It's Asia. And he has fan Web sites all over the world, including one in Russian."

Formula One, which gets virtually no attention in the United States, is one of the world's premier sports.

Initiative Sports Futures, which tracks global viewership of sporting events, puts the total viewership for the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix at 154 million, much of it in Europe, which made it the fourth-most watched sporting event last year, behind only the World Cup soccer championship match, the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony and the European Champions League final in soccer (what they call football there, of course). The top game in what we call football, the Super Bowl, was ranked No. 5, at 151 million global viewers.

Robbie Weiss, managing director of Nascar International, said Montoya will help eliminate some of the disdain that many Formula One fans have for Nascar, which runs on oval tracks instead of twisting roads. He said Daytona is also getting more attention from overseas sports broadcasters this year than ever before.

"He's such a big star in the Formula One world, it's opened up a lot of the sports broadcasters in a lot of these countries," Weiss said. "The Formula One fan, who is perhaps anti-Nascar, now [will] have a reason to watch. We might not keep them all, but we'll be able to keep more than a few of them."

Reaching new fans is important for Nascar, which saw its average television audience retreat slightly last year. Weiss said that the greater international attention will help Nascar attract foreign sponsors who probably never looked at the sport in the past as a way of reaching American consumers. And with growing satellite and digital cable broadcasts around the world, all the major U.S. sports are scrambling to reach the more global market, and dollars.

"We've been heading down this road for five years," said Weiss. "I think Montoya certainly helps that momentum."

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