AVONDALE, Ariz. -- On one side of the stage was a U.S. color guard comprised of an ROTC unit, on the other was a contingent from the local Mexican consulate flanking that nation's flag. The invocation was offered in Spanish and English, and the Mexican and United States national anthems were performed by Latin singing stars. Eventually, the sky over Phoenix International Raceway was filled with the sound of one common language -- the rumble of race car engines.
And with that, the first NASCAR Toyota Mexico Series race on U.S. soil was underway -- although it was quickly halted under caution when pole winner Jorge Goeters was spun in the first turn. But nothing could diminish the sense that something new and different was unfolding on the 1-mile track, a feeling that began during opening ceremonies and lasted through Abraham Calderon's celebration in Victory Lane.
For NASCAR, it was an opportunity to spotlight an international effort that also includes a fledgling circuit in Europe and a more established tour in Canada. For the Toyota Mexico Series, it was a chance to perform at a major American motorsports facility. And for many of the drivers, it was an opportunity to fulfill one dream -- and perhaps take a step toward realizing much larger ones.
"This track, I've only seen it on TV, and now I'm here," said Calderon, a 24-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, who scored his first career victory Friday night. "I think in the future, we can do it. This is a dream being here, and I plan in the future on racing on the big ones, Daytona and Talladega and all of the tracks that are amazing and awesome for us. Hopefully, I'll be there sometime."
NASCAR's Mexico Series has been in existence since 2004, and is operated in partnership with the Mexican entertainment conglomerate OCESA. Since its founding the league has gradually expanded to more and better tracks, and this year's schedule is comprised of a 15-race slate that opened Friday in Phoenix and ends Nov. 10 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, where the Nationwide Series competed for several years.
But the Phoenix race is clearly a crown jewel, both because of its location in a major U.S. market and its connection to the Sprint Cup Series competing at the same facility on the same weekend. Asked what he hoped to get out of this experience, Goeters -- a Mexico City native who also won the pole for the first Nationwide race in Mexico City -- was succinct: "Hendrick Motorsports," he said.
"Maybe like a spotter or something. I'd love to be that," he added, tongue only halfway in cheek. "Honestly, we are very excited. We know our level is growing. We want to race for our country, we want more races here in the States. We enjoy the facilities and everything they give us every race. So we never know. So I'm ready for my life to change."
Although that may seem a lofty goal, three-time Mexico Series champion German Quiroga is now in the Camping World Truck Series, and Goeters and Juan Carlos Blum are among those who have competed in a handful of Nationwide events. Others hope to use the Mexico Series as a springboard to something like an American late model tour or the K&N Pro Series, on which Monterrey native Daniel Suarez has made 19 career starts.
"I think NASCAR Mexico does a good job to develop drivers, to support drivers who want to come to America to do like a K&N or a super late model, or some of the national series," said Suarez, whose vehicle hit the wall and suffered damage early in Friday's race. "I think it's our goal in a few years to be one of those, or to be in the national series."
Clearly, it meant a great deal for the Mexico Series drivers to compete in the U.S. "I can't explain to you how emotional all the teams and drivers are," Suarez said. That much was evident throughout Friday, whether it was crewmen posing for photos in front of cars in the Sprint Cup garage, team members buying souvenirs, or the enthusiasm that surrounded the event's opening ceremonies. Before he gave the command to start engines, San Francisco Giants pitcher Sergio Romo bounced up and down as if he were on the mound.
"It just opens up an opportunity for them to come here and showcase their abilities," said Arizona Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzalez, who was an honorary race official. "NASCAR continues to grow, and just with every other major sport, everybody's looking to go global now and expand. You've seen this grow so much in the last 10 to 15 years."
Most Mexico Series teams are based around Mexico City, and the voyage to Phoenix entailed a convoy that crossed the border at Nogales, Ariz., where the team transporters were switched onto tractors that met U.S. trucking regulations. To cut costs, some teams shared haulers. The race was also designed to maximize cost effectiveness, with the event split into 50- and 25-lap segments separated by a 10-minute break that allowed teams to bring only skeleton crews.
To those involved, though, the travel was more than worth it. "This is a dream come true. We are doing history," said Enrique Contreras, director of the Toyota Mexico Series. "First time crossing the border. It was a little difficult this first time, but we now know the way to do it, and I hope we can do it a little more frequently. It's a really big opportunity for our series."
Raceway president Bryan Sperber sounded hopeful that the event would return. "I'm hoping this is the beginning of a very long relationship," he said. "? They absolutely would have a home here at PIR for as long as they want to race with us."
Sitting at the same table, Contreras was quick to accept the offer. "We are ready," he said. "Whenever you guys invite us, we will be here."
Calderon, who dominated the event by leading 62 of 75 laps, might not want to leave. After taking the checkered flag, he unleashed a massive burnout that enveloped the frontstretch grandstand in smoke -- and blew the engine in his No. 05 car in the process. A giddy Calderon laid on the roof of his vehicle, then stood and saluted the crowd, and then needed a tow truck to push his vehicle into Victory Lane.
"It's amazing," said an elated Calderon, whose car was backed by the World Baseball Classic. "I can't believe it. It's unbelievable. I can't even describe it with words."
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-- Abraham Calderon