The stock car engines were about to be revved in Mexico City, and it was almost time for the green flag to drop on one of the most important race weekends of his career, but even before Brian France hopped onto a private jet in Los Angeles to fly south of the border last Friday he was feeling as if he were headed for Victory Lane. "We're hitting our stride," said France, the chairman of NASCAR, moments before boarding. "We're certainly no longer a regional sport. We're a national sport--and we're just going to get bigger. We're kind of on a roll."
Yes, these are heady days for France and his burgeoning NASCAR Nation. On Sunday the 42-year-old France, whose grandfather Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR in 1947, joined a crowd of nearly 100,000 who paid up to 1,800 pesos ($160) at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, a slick, 2.518-mile road course in Mexico City, for a Busch Series race. It was NASCAR's first points race held outside the U.S. since a short-track event in Toronto in 1958, and it marked another landmark advance for the racing organization. By having the Busch Series, NASCAR's top minor league for the Nextel Cup Series, make a stop in another country, France has sent a signal that he is gearing up to go after something the pioneers of his sport never dreamed of: an international audience.
"Around the world auto racing is either the most popular or second-most popular sport behind soccer, depending on what country you're in," says France. "This means there's a lot of opportunity for us to grow."
The time, in fact, seems right for NASCAR to find a niche overseas. The primary form of racing outside the U.S., Formula One, has become boring with its lack of passing and the dominance of Michael Schumacher, who's won five driving titles in a row. At home NASCAR's emergence has rendered the Indy Racing League--and its marquee event, the Indy 500--virtually irrelevant, so France has turned his attention to new frontiers. By 2015 you should expect to see some form of NASCAR racing in Canada, China, Europe and Mexico.
In the short term, though, there's one more market that France still has to conquer in the U.S.: New York City. In December the International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which is run by the France family and owns 12 tracks that host Nextel Cup races, paid $100 million for 600 acres of unused industrial land on Staten Island. ISC is planning to build a three-quarter-mile track that will be completed in about five years, which means race cars could be lining up for the start of the New York City 400 as early as 2010.
New Yorkers have long shown disdain for NASCAR, but there's evidence of a change in attitude. The TV ratings in the New York market for Fox's telecast of the Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif., on Feb. 27 increased an eye-popping 94% over the ratings for the second race of 2004. "New York is the media capital of the world, and I can't think of anything better for our sport than having a race there," says driver Jeff Gordon. "I think a lot of New Yorkers would be surprised at what they'd see."
Clearly NASCAR's fender-banging, down-to-the wire races and its new 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff format has struck a chord with casual sports fans. But perhaps the most important factor driving the surge in places such as New York and Mexico, has been, well, NASCAR's drivers. Though still generally associated with the Southeast, the pool of racers has become more geographically diverse in the last decade--and more telegenic--which has helped attract new fans. For example, when Gordon joined the circuit full time 12 years ago, he was viewed by most hard-core fans as an outsider and a villain because he was from Vallejo, Calif. Yet in the field at Fontana there were more drivers in the field from California than any other state.
On Sunday there was another indication of increased diversity among drivers: nine in the Telcel Motorola 200 were from Mexico. This new era of international NASCAR officially began when Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez gave the command for the drivers to start their engines, "¬°Los pilotos, encienden sus motores!" In the end Martin Truex Jr., a 24-year-old driver from Mayetta, N.J., took the checkered flag. As he performed a victory burnout on the frontstretch, one of the largest crowd in the 55-year history of the Busch Series roared and waved Mexican flags.
For France and NASCAR, the scene affirmed that the sport can flourish outside the U.S.-- and that there's mucho dinero still to be made.
• Get a fresh version of Scorecard every weekday at SI.com/scorecard.