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In more ways than one, Fernandez is a favorite in Mexico Busch race
The entry list for Sunday's NASCAR Busch Series race in Mexico City is jammed full of top-shelf stars.
Nope, the only time NASCAR's newest live audience is likely to damn near tear the grandstands down is when the track P.A. announcer utters the words "Adrian Fernandez".
Wait... make that "AAAADREEEE-ANNNN FERRRRR-NAN-DEZZZZZZZZ!"
From the time that the Mexico City native first straddled a motorcycle seat at the age of eight, the now 42-year old Fernandez has captured the imagination of his home country. With the support of his father, he raced his way around Central America and eventually Europe, blasting his way up the open wheel career ladder from Formula Vee to Formula 3 and every other formula in between.
As his success grew, so did his rabid homeland fan following. And when he arrived in CART (now the Champ Car Series) in 1993, no one could have predicted how quickly both would explode to enormous proportions.
For a full decade, Fernandez blistered the left- and right-hand turns of CART, winning eight times in 179 races and finishing on the podium 21 times. But to truly understand the power of the world's fastest Mexican, you needed to attend an event at Fontana, Calif.or Long Beach or heaven forbid Monterrey and Mexico City. Forget Andretti, Unser or Rahal. These grandstands were alive with chants of "Fernandez!" and in constant movement due to an endless sea of Mexican flags.
"Before his last race in Mexico City, the crowd started cheering as soon as they saw him walking to his car," says Paul Tracy, winner of that 2003 event. "And they never stopped. After we had started the car, I could still hear them. And I knew what he was doing on the track without even having to ask. If I saw the crowd jump up and start waving flags, then I knew Adrian was on the move. If they were just sitting there, he was in trouble."
Fernandez once joked before a qualifying session at Monterrey that he was going to have some of his hillside-sitting fans bring their rifles to shoot out the tires of his competitors.
After smiling for a second, he paused... then reminded the zealots that he was not serious.
Such is the Fernandez following.
When he jumped to the Indy Racing League in 2004, the masses jumped with him. And when he won three of the season's final six events, they nearly jumped out of their skin. His success in both leagues sent open wheel owners scouring the racetracks of Mexico for talent, a rush that paved the way for current stars like Michel Jourdain Jr., who will also run in this weekend's race, and another dozen Mexican racers scattered throughout the American open wheel and stock car ranks.
Which brings us to this weekend. Fernandez had expected to be behind the wheel of his Indy Car on Sunday, ready for the IRL season opener at the Hometead-Miami Speedway. But instead, he will be piloting a car with fenders, 1,300 miles to the west. In mid-January, the driver-owner realized that he would not have enough money in his coffers to field a full flotilla of Indy Cars this season. What was supposed to be a two-car team of Fernandez Racing machines will only be a one-car effort for the foreseeable future, driven by teammate and employee Scott Sharp. The boss hopes to find the funding to enter his own name for the Indianapolis 500 in May, but for now, he had decided to settle for a seat on top of the pit box this weekend.
That's when the phone rang.
"Jimmie Johnson and I are very good friends," Fernandez explains. "We have gotten to know each other through some mutual friends and business associates. And when he realized that I was not going to be running in the IRL, he talked to Rick Hendrick and told him that I would be a good fit in their car for the weekend."
And so it is that Fernandez will be behind the wheel of a Lowe's Chevy in front of hometown fans. Johnson is happy because he hooked his buddy up with a gig. Hendrick is happy because he found another chunk of exposure for one of his two biggest sponsors. Lowe's is happy because it will have a full star-powered weekend to tap into the fastest growing demographic in North America.
As for Fernandez, don't think for a second that he is happy simply to have a ride and a chance to go home for the weekend.
He wants to win.
"I think we have a real chance," says the man who owns three career road/street course victories in Champ Cars. "I wouldn't just run the race to run the race. I have spent a lot of time talking with the team and visiting with Hendrick Motorsports. We tested at the Virginia International Raceway (one week ago). I know people wonder about me making the move to a bigger, heavier stock car, but a race car is a race car and I have been doing this a long time. I will figure it out."
I don't doubt him. And neither should you. After all, 8.6 million people's worth of willpower should be worth at least a few extra horsepower under the hood.
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images and Senior Producer of NASCAR Nation on SPEED Channel. He can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.