NASCAR appeals to millions of race fans across the U.S. Spend any time at a race and you’ll quickly know why. It’s not just the roar of the engines or the intoxicating smell of burning rubber and motor fuel—it’s the intense, high-speed race to be a champion that at any given moment could send one of the most skilled drivers careening into the wall at 180 miles per hour.
At the Dickies 500 in November, I spent a weekend with the No. 42 Texaco car, driven by Juan Pablo Montoya and sponsored by Chevron. The weekend featured unprecedented access to the garage, pit row, a seat with Montoya’s crew chief during the race and Montoya himself.
"NASCAR offers an exciting lifestyle in many respects, but it requires focus and a lot of conditioning," said Montoya, who has dropped as much as 12 pounds in one four-hour race. "It’s intense and you have to be prepared mentally and physically because everything happens so quickly. But once you get behind the wheel, it’s all business and instinct takes over."
Montoya, who praised Texaco’s NASCAR involvement as "legendary…a driving force behind the sport’s success," is no stranger to winning.
Representing Ganassi Racing, Montoya is the only driver to have won the North American open-wheel CART title, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona, all at the first attempt. He has also become a crossover race winner by taking victories in Formula One, Champ Car, IndyCar, Grand-Am and NASCAR. The only other driver to accomplish such a feat is Mario Andretti.
Where NASCAR excels is in its unprecedented access for fans and sponsors. More than 125,000 people from all over the U.S. packed Texas Motor Speedway for the Dickies 500.
For NASCAR, one race is an event that lasts an entire weekend. In Texas, for example, celebrity chef Mario Batali partnered with Montoya for "Asphalt Chef," an Iron Chef-style competition exclusively for about 250 hardcore race fans. The duo competed against NASCAR drivers Carl Edwards and Bobby Labonte, who were assisted by chefs Rachel Ray and Tim Love respectively. The teams had 25 minutes to create a recipe and deliver a finished dish to the judges. Batali and Montoya, known to insiders as "Team Burning Ravioli," emerged victorious with a Vietnamese-Colombian surf-and-turf dish featuring Napa cabbage with cilantro, chili peppers, scallions and shrimp cooked in orange juice.
On race day, Montoya was all business, breaking his routine only to attend a press briefing for sponsors and their guests, which included Robert Duff, a partner in Landmark Industries, a Houston-based c-store marketer flying the Chevron and Texaco banners.
"A big part of what we do is reaching out to the fans and our sponsors because they are what has helped this sport grow to what it is," said Montoya, who added he was disappointed that Texaco decided not to sponsor a car in 2009. "Anytime you lose a sponsor it’s difficult, but losing Texaco is something that seems a little harder for us to accept because of all it has done for the sport. But like everything else, this is a business and we’re all optimistic they could return again (as a sponsor)."
A native of Columbia, Montoya spends much of his time living in South Florida, where he is a loyal convenience store customer buying, not surprisingly, packaged beverages and bagged ice. "I’ve got to stay hydrated and I like my drinks to be cold, real cold," he said. "Tell everyone you can, turn the coolers up a few degrees, especially in Florida."