|The Changing Face of NASCAR|
Carlos Contreras broke barriers for Latino drivers, now Jose Arteaga and others are following in his tracks
The complexion of NASCAR is changing. The perception of NASCAR as being a csport for "good ol' boys" is fast becoming a thing of the past. These days, those successfully leading the ethnic diversification in this popular sport are not only those who govern NASCAR, but now include a growing group of Hispanic drivers determined to make their mark in the winner's circle.
The two best examples of the growing Hispanic influence within NASCAR represent two different generations of drivers. The first is 41-year old Carlos Contreras, a native of Mexico City, and symbol of Latino pride within the ranks of NASCAR. Contreras is the first Hispanic driver in NASCAR history, joining the sport's Nationwide Series ranks in 2003. During his career, Contreras drove under the watchful eye and mentorship of NASCAR champion legends, Richard and Kyle Petty as part of their racing team.
"When I met Richard Petty, he came to my crew chief in Daytona and said you have a visitor,Contreras said, 的 was completely excited when I met him because I knew all about his reputation. When I met them, the Petty's said they wanted me on their team and I signed a contract for two years. It was a truly a dream for me and they taught me a lot about the sport."
For both Arteaga and Contreras, their love of racing runs deep within their heart and soul. Though for Contreras, the racing bug didn't bite immediately.
"I started driving a bit older in the sport, when I was 20 years old,Contreras said. "My older brother, Enrique, who is now the NASCAR director in Mexico, he started driving when he was eight. I remember my father and Enrique, they bought a go-cart for me and I said no, because I was in love with soccer more. But in 1989, my brother had an accident in a motorcycle, a scooter cycle ... and my father needed a driver and asked me if I could fill-in by driving only about three or four laps. So I did, and after that I realized, wow, this sport is amazing and I have to race. The Contreras family is a racing sport family."
"I don't have blood in my veins. ... I have fuel."
"My passion has always been speed and racing,Arteaga said about his own racing roots. "When I was a kid, I raced motorcycles and more, and then, as I grew up, I became interested in NASCAR. When I was very young, I remember watching the Daytona 500 and I knew then I wanted to be in that race someday, like those racers. I started doing some racing in Mexico, and fortunately the next year, NASCAR came to Mexico and began sanctioning races there, creating an opportunity for the sport to grow in my country."
The younger Arteaga is reaping the benefits of adoration and accolades that Mexico's many current NASCAR fans now lavish upon their favorite drivers. As with many trailblazers, early recognition and talent is sometimes overlooked. Contreras recalls a time when being the first Hispanic NASCAR driver meant very little in his native country.
"When I came to NASCAR in 2003, no one at that time was paying attention to the sport in Mexico,said Contreras wistfully. "Everyone was focused on open wheel Indy cars all the time. So, when I placed in my first top ten finish race, no one was really impressed in Mexico. We even had a press conference in Mexico City at one point early on in 2000 where Kyle and Richard Petty were in attendance, and the press wasn't all that interested or impressed."
"It was a shame because during my big opportunity driving with the Petty team, no one in my home country really knew how big a moment that was for me,Contreras added. "But now, everyone in Mexico knows NASCAR, the sport is growing, growing, growing. Now, a lot of people in Mexico know, understand and appreciate what I do. I never felt a lot of support from Mexico for several years in my early career, it was sad that no one appreciated it."
Those bittersweet days are long past. Today, both Contreras and Arteaga, as teammates for FCV Racing under the guidance of Mike Vazquez, are living their dreams as NASCAR racers with a keen eye on the winner's circle someday and the ongoing cheers of their now avid supporters.
Arteaga says NASCAR has always been his favorite racing sport above all else, in large part due to the fans. "I like the culture and I like the cars themselves. I enjoy the feeling of teamwork and how the racers like Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. work with the fans. In fact, one of the best things about NASCAR for me is enjoying the fans. The fans follow you all the way. No matter where you start or no matter where you finish, the fans will always be there. In Formula One racing, the fans may support a team overall, but in NASCAR, the fans support the driver. They cheer for the driver, and they support us -- and we are really grateful for that."
Unlike Arteaga, Contreras remembers adjusting to NASCAR over the other popular race formats in Mexico.
"Driving in a NASCAR oval is a completely different technique from road courses that were the norm in Mexico,Contreras said. "On the road courses, you can be aggressive. ... No mistakes are allowed when you're driving on an oval track."
"I learned how to be more patient while driving NASCAR in the states, because I was used to the Sprint races in Mexico,added Contreras. "Here the NASCAR races are a two-hour race ... not just 30 minutes like the sprint races I had been used to driving in Mexico. So, you have to concentrate more and think. I had to get used to using pit stops. You have think about how the car is reacting all the time. You have to change lanes and be very smart in your driving."
Like most race car drivers, Contreras and Arteaga are never at a loss for words to describe the feeling they experience sitting behind the wheel during a race. For Contreras, the years since his racing debut haven't dulled the deep emotions he felt with his first win.
"When I won my first race in 1994, I was shouting and crying with joy in the car,recalled Contreras. "My father passed away three months after that race. Although my father was sick, he was crying with joy with me. It was an amazing experience."
Arteaga is equally enthusiastic about his love for racing and the thrill it provides him each day on the track.
"Racing, for me? It's passion, it's love, it's adrenaline. You wish you were in the car all the day long, maybe even 24/7,Arteaga said. "It's something you enjoy doing and it's something that is truly passionate for me and what I feel I was born to do. When you get out of the car, you can feel the adrenaline going and you even feel goosebumps."
Contreras, NASCAR, FCV Racing's Mike Vazquez and many others are now actively working hard to bring more diversity into the ranks of NASCAR by tapping into new talent via the organization's newest program.
"NASCAR has a development program, run and sponsored by the organization called "Driving for Diversity," which tries to find new minority drivers for NASCAR and its sponsors," said Arteaga. "The program has Hispanics, African-Americans, Native-Americans and also women training to be great NASCAR drivers someday. I'm the first Hispanic driver to be accepted into the program and now have the chance to be trained, coached and developed by an American NASCAR team. It's a different experience for me, because in Mexico we don't get the opportunity to race NASCAR as frequently as we can here in the U.S. So this program gives me the opportunity to race more and develop my skills under NASCAR trainers."
As part of this program, Contreras is excited to lend his expertise learned from the legendary Richard Petty, as well as his own years of experience, to the younger drivers coming up the ranks. Though, Contreras happily admits that part of his racing philosophy is a bit unusual.
"If you want to be a good NASCAR driver, you need two things,Contreras said with a chuckle,"You need to think and you need cojones. When you mix your your brain with your cojones, then you will be a champion."
At 41-years old, Contreras knows his days behind the wheel have been well-spent, but are numbered. That in mind, his new goal is to increase the ranks of younger Hispanic drivers in NASCAR.
"We are working hard with Jorge Arteaga and other hispanic drivers because I want to see a Mexican driver in a NASCAR championship cup series,Contreras said. "This is my personal goal and I think this is our goal for the team. We are the only team in Mexico that is working towards that goal. We are also trying to bring more Hispanic drivers from Venezuela, from Colombia, from Peru into the sport. Those countries have a lot of good driving talent, but they don't have the money. We are the only team - FCV racing that is thinking very hard about really getting more Hispanic drivers from everywhere moving up the ranks into the NASCAR championship races. I'm confident our team will put a Hispanic driver in the Sprint Cup series very soon."