Sunday's Telcel Motorola 200 in Mexico City marked the first step in NASCAR's quest for global domination. Before you conquer the globe, though, you have to make sure your drivers don't get kidnapped on the way to the track. Team members who trekked down for the first official NASCAR race outside the United States received, courtesy of NASCAR, a "participant travel guide." The handout includes such admonitions as "use ATMs and banks only during business hours" and "in restaurants, ask for agua purificada." My favorite warning: "Be wary of persons representing themselves as Mexican police or other officials. This can prevent you from becoming a victim of harassment and mistreatment by Mexican law enforcement."
The Busch Series, the AAA to the major leagues of NASCAR's Nextel Cup, added a Mexico City stop this season with the aim of winning détente with our neighbors to the south. I'm riding along as a producer on the Speed Channel's NBS 24/7, a weekly behind-the-scenes look at two Busch racing teams. (You can check out our Mexican adventures at 9:30 ET tonight.) This week, riding along means taking a chartered bus or shuttle van to the track. NASCAR requires that all participants remain in the stock-car bubble, confining themselves to the hotel and the track rather than set foot in what my beloved travel guide calls "the largest megalopolis on earth." Under no circumstances can anyone hire a taxi.
All the warnings and scare tactics lead to all kinds of rumors in the days before the race—that semis carrying race cars were clotted at the border, or that criminal gangs had infiltrated the hotels and knew which rooms were occupied by the drivers and owners. All proved groundless, but many drivers are still hardly enthusiastic about this lap around the NASCAR track. Tony Stewart, winner of the Busch season opener at Daytona, opted out with his usual lack of grace. "Anywhere you go where they've got to get the Federales or the police or whatever they are to escort your rigs to the track, that's not somewhere I want to race," he told the Associated Press. "It's a pain in the butt is what it is," driver David Stremme told the Morris News Service. In a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, Stremme fell ill with stomach problems and left the track doubled over in agony less than halfway through the race. Agua purificada, anyone?
The drivers aren't the only ones complaining. The track, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, is a road course, quite unlike the speedway ovals that are NASCAR's stock in trade. Many teams had to build road-course cars from scratch, pay to have their drivers test them, rent or customize their "haulers" to lug them down to Mexico, pay an exorbitant amount of insurance and overtime to the truck drivers, and then race in unfamiliar terrain—all to chase the pesos of folks the NASCARistas spent much of the weekend trashing.
In large part, the ill will is merely frustration at the logistical problems. NASCAR took over three high-priced hotels in the ritzy section of town, accommodations far beyond the customary roadside inns in Bristol, Tenn., and Talladega, Ala. Unfortunately, it takes as much as two hours to get to El Autodromo. Worse, the mandated departure time for the crews is 5 a.m., making for many hung-over, sleep-deprived rednecks. Imagine a pre-dawn riot of brightly colored shirts festooned with sponsors from McDonald's and Home Depot to Jani-King janitorial services and Vassarette lingerie, all chugging coffee and muttering curses.
Mexico City does earn a thumbs-up from the Busch rank and file when it comes to ogle-worthy females. "I've fallen in love 300 times since I've been here," says one starry-eyed crewman. Another wit with the nom de garage "Tuna" notes that "there are more babes per section of grandstand here than at any track on the NASCAR circuit." Indeed, this is more of a Formula One scene than a stock-car crowd—much of Mexican showbiz royalty has turned out to see the race, as have the titans of local industry. The classiness of the female population means muchos problemas for the average turnwrech. Grim accounts of unsuccessful wooing fill the air at the Autodrome. "We sent some beers over, and they looked at us like they'da preferred to drink motor oil," went a typical complaint.
The race itself goes off flawlessly, except for the mangy dog that scampers onto the asphalt. The mutt runs around in circles for a bit, barely dodges a car that's running a lap down, then recrosses the track and jumps over a fence to freedom. The tricky road course does claim many victims, most of whom had never before turned right on a racetrack (NASCAR ovals only require lefts), but there aren't any major injuries. Several big-name Mexican drivers, like Adrian Fernandez and Carlos Contreras, received special dispensation to run the race, but none threaten victory lane. (America's own Martin Truex Jr. took the checkered flag.) Still, all of the NASCAR wags seem happy with the announced crowd of 94,229—look for a Nextel Cup race in Ciudad de Mexico soon.
The off-track safety issues prove chimerical as well. It turns out that our TV crew is the lone victim of a serious crime. One afternoon, the production team fell for a classic, "Hey, you dropped a dollar" misdirection. In a blink, our $3,500 camera was gone, along with the tape inside. If anyone out there sees excerpts of a beautifully crafted NASCAR documentary on Spanish-language television, please let me know.