NASCAR racing - iconic sport of the American South - marketing itself in Spanish? You can thank rookie star Juan Pablo Montoya, the first Hispanic driver to win a race in NASCAR's top series, the Nextel Cup.
The Colombia native and now-Miami resident, one of 43 drivers competing in Sunday's sold-out Ford 400 NASCAR finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, has become an instant attraction, expanding NASCAR's fan base and international appeal.
Ford championship weekend cards bearing Montoya's picture urge fans to ''Celebra Con Montoya, El Campeón de Tu Casa'' (celebrate with Montoya, the champion of your house).
Montoya's team, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, is the only NASCAR outfit with race-report websites in both English (chipganassiracing.com) and Spanish (espanol.chipganassiracing.com).
''I think it shows it doesn't matter where you're from, you can do it,'' Montoya said in an interview.
''I think he is in the process of doing what Tiger Woods did for golf,'' said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of corporate communications.
''People will watch because of Juan Pablo, just like today they watch because of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart,'' said Hunter, NASCAR's resident historian. ``I see Montoya joining that group.''
In less than a year of racing, he has become an international star in a sport that has struggled to find popularity outside the United States. Forty percent of the traffic to his website is from overseas, including countries as farflung as England, Hungary, Russia, Singapore and Venezuela, said John Olguin, Ganassi vice president of communications.
''I don't pay too much attention to [my popularity],'' Montoya, 32, said Thursday. ``I was at the Wrigley's Convenience Store convention in Atlanta, and there were people from South Africa who said they were huge fans and apparently I have a huge following there. It's unreal.''
Montoya has come a long way from the kid who started Kart racing at age 6 in Colombia.
Indianapolis 500 win
In 1999, Montoya headed to the United States and the CART series. In his rookie season at age 24, already speeding toward success and fame, he posted a record seven wins. He would go on to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and later win seven Formula One races. His star has brightened on the NASCAR circuit.
His fame was on display Thursday night as Montoya, wife Connie and five Colombian nonprofits hosted a gala dinner at Karu & Y in Miami for their charity, Formula Smiles, to raise money for needy Colombian communities.
''It's been amazing to get such a great response from the NASCAR and the Latin community,'' Montoya said as the red carpet portion of the event wound down.
``This is an amazing turnout.''
Among the 600-plus attendees were Colombian superstar singer Juanes and his wife, actress Karen Martinez, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. A guitar owned and signed by Juanes, who performed after dinner, raised $4,002 in a silent auction; Montoya's autographed race helmet raised $5,000.
'Frive for Diversity'
Because he hit the NASCAR circuit already established as a world-class driver, Montoya has become a poster child for NASCAR's effort to bring new kinds of faces to the sport. The ''Drive for Diversity'' program cultivates minority and female drivers and crew chiefs in its lower level series in hopes they will ascend to the upper ranks.
''He's legitimized the diversity message for the sport . . . because he's a legitimate star,'' Ganassi president Steve Lauletta said.
Though he is 21st in the NASCAR standings with mixed results in his first year racing stock cars, he has been a resounding success as one of the faces of racing - he was a featured driver on ABC's NASCAR in Primetime miniseries and has fronted national advertising campaigns for Sprint Nextel and Wrigley's and a U.S. Department of Transportation public service announcement.
Ann Barker, manager of motorsports and licensing for Montoya's primary sponsor, Texaco/Havoline, said Montoya has helped NASCAR better reach Hispanic fans - ``but it's much bigger than that.''
He has boosted merchandise sales by 200 percent for his team's No. 42 Dodge, compared to a year ago with driver Casey Mears in the seat. Montoya also has helped lure a new audience at race tracks and on TV. Lauletta said negotiations are ongoing to bring international sponsors aboard. He said the organization has talked to companies in Spain, Germany, Dubai and England about sponsorship and personal service agreements.
Lauletta also said an untapped area for growth is having his merchandise available abroad, something he noted should have happened this year.
''We can go after companies that other teams can't because we have a global personality in Juan,'' Lauletta said. ``Now our challenge is how do we put plans together to take this year one and really leverage it here with the NASCAR series in the U.S. and globally.''
Miami commercial real estate broker Frank Trelles said he has tuned into NASCAR races for the first time this season just to watch Montoya.
''I feel like a lot of people never would have given NASCAR a chance if it wasn't for someone like him, someone we can relate to,'' said Trelles, a Cuban American.
As he has broadened NASCAR's international image, Montoya has been a polarizing figure among traditional fans, though Hunter says he is seeing some ''good ole boy'' racing devotees embrace Montoya. He drives aggressively. His burgeoning base of fans wave Colombian flags and chant his name. He is routinely booed during pre-race driver introductions, and some fans cheer when he encounters trouble during the race.
''Some people like you, and some people hate you,'' said Montoya, who does not view himself as an ``ambassador.''
Speedway President Curtis Gray said the track receives constant inquiries from fans about Montoya. He said he expects Montoya's performance to improve and a surge in interest to follow.
Hunter, a 40-year veteran of racing, agreed.
''I truly believe he's going to be a super, super star in this sport, and to do that you have to win,'' he said, ``and I think he's going to win.''
Miami Herald staff writer Fred Gonzalez contributed to this report.