NASCAR is a sport that has fans everywhere, but its American roots and the passion of its fans seem to be strongest in the Southern United States. However, in recent years, NASCAR's Southern connection has reached further south than ever before.
24-year-old Jorge Arteaga may have been born in the town of Aguascalientes, Mexico, but this week, he's working toward someday achieving his childhood dream of NASCAR glory at the Daytona 500.
Arteaga has already received much success and notoriety as one of NASCAR Mexico's best and most popular drivers. Arteaga has begun his fourth season of racing for FCV Racing as part of NASCAR's sponsored racing program in Mexico; he works under Carlos Contreras, who has the distinction of being NASCAR's first Hispanic driver ever.
Through voting that was done online at NASCAR's website, Arteaga was voted NASCAR Mexico's most popular driver in both 2009 and 2010. He also finished eighth in the 2010 Championship, over 35 other drivers. After having received a significant measure of success in such a short time in Mexico, Arteaga is now in Dayona to work with the best drivers and coaches NASCAR has to offer in the states.
Arteaga's passion for NASCAR compels him to win on the race track for his own personal success; but he also has an equal passion to be a symbol of pride for his country and to significantly help those back in his native Mexico.
Q. How did you get interested in NASCAR in Mexico?
A. My passion has always been speed and racing. When I was a kid racing 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.
Q. How is NASCAR reaching out to find new drivers in Mexico and elsewhere?
A. The first Hispanic driver in NASCAR, who opened the doors for the rest of us, was [Mexican-born] Carlos Contreras in 1999. There are now others driving in the big leagues of racing. NASCAR has a development program, run and sponsored by the organization "Driving for Diversity," which tries to find new minority drivers for NASCAR and its sponsors. 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.
Q. What are you enjoying most about this new experience with NASCAR?
A. One of the smaller changes, I guess, was just getting used to the change in weather between here and my home in Mexico. In Mexico, it's always warm; but here I have to get used to driving in colder conditions, too. The training here is a bit tougher via the coaching and workshops that teach us drivers to endure a four-hour race without being nervous or tired. But, I love the training here and it's really working for me.
The real work and the fun stuff is going to begin after Daytona when we will be doing more training in the car, racing on the actual track and working with the team to learn how the car reacts and more. It's very competitive stuff; but I enjoy it, and when you love what you do ... it's not really work.
Q. There's so many kinds of car racing. Why did you choose NASCAR?
A. I like the culture and I like the cars themselves. I enjoy some Formula One racing -- which is popular in Mexico too -- but I enjoy NASCAR more. I enjoy the feeling of teamwork and how the racers like Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt 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. It's kind of a relationship between the fans and the racer. 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.
Q. You were voted the most popular NASCAR driver in 2009 and 2010 by your fans in Mexico. How does it feel to get that recognition?
A. That's what I appreciate so much from the fans. NASCAR is fairly new here in Mexico. It only started in 2008, and the first driver to win it was my teammate Carlos Contreras. The following years, I was really surprised to win that award because there have been drivers who have been racing 30 years, and I've only been racing for four years thus far ... so, this is real appreciation from the fans -- and for me and for NASCAR, the fans are truly important.
Q. What's the feeling you have when you are driving in a race?
A. It's passion, it's love, it's adrenaline. You wish you were in the car all the day long, maybe even 24/7. 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. It's a great feeling.
Q. Is there a major difference between NASCAR in Mexico and the U.S.?
A. The passion and the basics are the same. However, there are differences. NASCAR in Mexico only began in 2007 as opposed to almost 60 years of NASCAR history in the U.S. Thus far, there are better tracks and more fans in the U.S., and our cars are different, too. The cars in Mexico have 250-400 horsepower engines, but here in the states they have 850 horsepower. So the cars in the U.S. are more powerful and a bit heavier. However, that's why I'm training here -- so I can get used to these cars. It's all part of the process to help me develop into a better NASCAR driver.
Q. This week, you will be at the Daytona 500. What will that be like for you?
A. This is my first time at the Daytona 500 as a driver working with the people of NASCAR. I will be there also to help publicize the new diversity program that has 10 drivers including me, as well as another driver from Mexico, one Puerto Rican driver and a Colombian driver, three African-American drivers and three women drivers too. It's going to be a really busy and fun week filled with media interviews, meeting and working with our sponsors, training and more.
Q. Tell us about your "Team Nutrition" program that you've created.
A. I always wanted to make a foundation to help people. We started Equipo Nutricion (translated as Team Nutrition) to help beat the obesity problem in Mexico, which is significant there. When I started the foundation, things happened very fast in terms of getting the support of sponsors and the governments of many states in Mexico.
The way it works is we get 10 tons of food from each race to distribute to those who need it. However, if we end the race in the top five, we get five times as much food to distribute -- and if we win the race, we get even more food to give away. In 2009, we gave away 195 tons of food, and in 2010, it was 204 tons of food. It's a lot of food -- but there are a lot of needy people in Mexico. It's a huge job to do and we have much more to do.
As a NASCAR driver, I visit schools and tell the kids why it's important to eat right and to exercise to stay healthy. People love to see the drivers, so when they see how we have to eat well, exercise daily and take care of our bodies ... it's a good influence and inspires them to do the same.
Our priority in 2011 is to distribute even more healthy food; but also, to have our first ecology park where we will teach people how to grow and make the best use of the food for themselves and their communities all year long. What I get from NASCAR is the opportunity not only to race and do what I love, but also to feed people and work with my foundation to help as many people as I can.
Q. What are your ultimate dreams of success in NASCAR?
A. I want to be racing cars in the biggest leagues of NASCAR eventually. I really want to race in Daytona one day. Right now, I'm racing in the local series, but I'm looking forward to moving up the ranks. When I was a child, I said I would race at Daytona and it's my dream. I also hope to be able to encourage more Hispanics to support our people's representation in this sport. I want to be a Mexican driver - a Hispanic driver who's not only representing my country, but also my dreams.
Next: NASCAR's Undercover Boss, Steve Phelps, Has a Tricky Challenge