NASCAR & Auto Racing

Will open minds greet open-wheel drivers in NASCAR?

Dario, Jacques and Juan Pablo?

No, it’s not exactly going to be like the days of Richard, Cale and Dale next year in stock-car racing. This isn’t Uncle Cletus’ NASCAR anymore.

That’s not a bad thing.

Some folks who live in the Carolinas and surrounding states think the sport they gave birth to and nurtured is being taken from them one little bit at a time. First, they took the races from North Wilkesboro and the next thing you know some guy named Jacques Villeneuve gets a Cup ride.

Despite the howls of despair, NASCAR is a lot stronger than it was in the days when people in the sport felt they needed passports to travel outside this region.

Moving races hurts the people who live near the tracks that lose them, and not every decision that’s been made has been a good one. But had NASCAR clung to its Bubba-centricity, the sport would not have grown into the mammoth it has become.

People in the Midwest or Southwest have a right to be race fans, too. Yes, fans in the Southeast helped NASCAR build to a place where it could go national. But a Midwestern fan who didn’t have a track within 1,000 miles until Kansas Speedway opened can’t be held accountable for not attending as many races 20 years ago, can he?

Now it appears someone has yelled “FIRE!” in a crowded open-wheel drivers’ lounge and drivers are scurrying toward NASCAR as if they’re running from a green car full of peanuts (fear of the color green and peanuts being long-held racer superstitions.)

Juan Pablo Montoya’s defection to NASCAR surprised just about everyone when it was announced in mid-2006, and his impact has been easy to see. The guy’s good, and he’s going to get better as he gets more experience.

A.J. Allmendinger was the only American doing anything in the Champ Car World Series, and he came over, too.

Next year, Villeneuve is coming to Bill Davis Racing. While not yet announced, it’s a foregone conclusion that IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti will be with Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team in 2008. Sam Hornish Jr., another IndyCar driver, will test the stock-car waters the rest of this year with the possibility of coming to a third Penske Racing car next year. Dan Wheldon might be in the pipeline for 2009.

Are these guys just looking to make money? You bet. Why shouldn’t they? If you’re going to put your neck on the line, literally, every time you go racing, why wouldn’t you do it where you can get the most potential income, competition and attention? Every top-level driver is a competitor, and every competitor wants to beat the best.

Montoya won his first Cup race at Infineon this year. I don’t know if Villeneuve, Franchitti or Hornish will ever win in a stock car, but won’t it be interesting to find out? All four have won the Indianapolis 500.

Would it be better if Cup teams just shuffled around the same drivers who are now in the sport, recycling guys who make $3million a year for finishing 23rd and never moving the sport’s needle?

Remember a few years ago when everybody in NASCAR was hiring 15- and 16-year-olds to developmental contracts? For every one who has made it to Cup or eventually will, probably 10 or more didn’t make it in the long term.

Not every open-wheel driver who comes to NASCAR will have a successful career. But, as was the case with those young drivers, the ones who do make it will add something.

Montoya is from Colombia. Franchitti is a Scotsman of Italian ancestry. Villeneuve is Canadian with a dose of the French influence thrown in. Their presence here will give stock-car racing more appeal and more exposure internationally.

That might not float Uncle Cletus’ boat, but that doesn’t mean it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened.