While NASCAR's Nationwide Series won't return to Mexico City for a fifth year in 2009, the sanctioning body isn't abandoning its efforts to build a stronger fan base in the country.
It'll do so by focusing on the NASCAR Corona Series.
When the Nationwide Series made its initial visit to Mexico City, more than 94,000 were in attendance, a figure that steadily declined to just more than 57,000 this year. At the same time, the trip was never a favorite of those involved in the series due largely to the trip's logistics.
Robbie Weiss, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting and the managing director of its international program, said Monday that further strengthening the 14-race Corona Series makes the most sense for all concerned.
"And without kind of changing or re-injecting that thing a little bit that the best area for focus for us as well as OCESA was on further strengthening and building the NASCAR Mexico Corona Series."
The circuit became a part of NASCAR for the 2007 season after it was announced in December 2006 that the Desafio Corona Series had reached a licensing agreement with NASCAR.
The series was founded in 2004 in conjunction with OCESA and NASCAR to form NASCAR Mexico. OCESA is a subsidiary of promoter CIE, which operates throughout Latin America.
Drivers compete on a variety of ovals and road courses throughout Mexico in cars similar to those running in Late Model classes in the U.S. The cars utilize fiberglass composite bodies and spec engines in an effort to control costs.
While the Nationwide Series will race in Montreal this weekend, Weiss said there's always been a strong NASCAR following north of the border, something that traditionally hasn't been the case in Mexico. The goal from the outset was to convert Mexico's open-wheel race fans into devotees of stock cars.
"When we talked about ways we'd go about that, we felt that building a national championship that was a full-time series made in Mexico, supported by Mexican drivers, Mexican teams, Mexican fans, Mexican media and Mexican sponsors was really what we envisioned we were looking to do," Weiss said. "As part of that, we knew at the time that, really, the NASCAR brand was nonexistent in the Mexico market and we were starting from scratch.
"That was a pretty big goal that we had ahead of us and we jointly needed to bring down a big event. And introducing the sport via the Nationwide Series and those events would allow us a great opportunity to really at the same time help launch the Mexican stock car series."
NASCAR is still finalizing its 2009 schedules, but Steve O'Donnell, vice president of racing operations, said the Nationwide Series will again race 35 times. The Charlotte Observer is reporting that Iowa Speedway is a leading contender to be added to the schedule.
With five new tracks having opened in Mexico in recent years, including three this year, Weiss believes the future for NASCAR in Mexico is bright, even if one of its U.S.-based series isn't part of the equation.
"There's still a lot of work to be done down there, but to the credit of [director of racing development] Chad Little and the competitors and the teams down there, they've come a long way and we've got a great fan base supporting us and putting on 14 events from March through November," Weiss said. "We've shown very positive signs as to what we'll be able to do."
Ronnie Russell, president of Team Rensi, which fields cars for Bobby Hamilton Jr., couldn't find a sponsor for Hamilton to run at Mexico City, instead putting Boris Said in the car after he brought a sponsorship for the race. Said will be in the car again this week in Montreal as the team's sponsor, Smithfield Foods, doesn't have an international presence.
"You hate not going to places because when you start a place hopefully it's been successful enough that you'd be able to stay there," Russell said Monday. "On the other hand, Mexico and the Canada [trips are] so expensive on us -- especially us independent teams -- that the costs involved in that, we're not going to miss that part. The Mexico thing, trying to do what they were trying to do, I applaud NASCAR for that part. But from the other standpoint, it was a very costly thing for us to do, too."
The race was easier, at least financially, for larger organizations that field teams in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith believes the four races in Mexico City paid dividends.
"The race in Mexico City was part of NASCAR's overall expansion into the southwest and in particular [was meant] to expose the sport more directly to the Hispanic community," Smith said. "I think it succeeded in that primary purpose.
"From a team's perspective, we will save costs by moving to another domestic venue. From a sponsorship vantage point, Mexico City was positive and negative. Positive for multinational companies such as 3M, and negative for companies who had no product distribution in Mexico and therefore could not activate their sponsorships in Mexico. All in all [it was] a worthwhile endeavor."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.