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Speed Reading: NASCAR's top 10 international moments
Funny what 100,000 fans and a solid 3.4 TV rating can do.
The only part of last year's trip to Mexico that still burns my grits is all the talk about "NASCAR's first points-paying race outside of the United States."
Not true. In fact, it hasn't been true for about 54 years now. There is a common perception that NASCAR has always been the exclusive playground of white guys racing on North Carolina tracks and driving cars that were built only in Detroit. The truth is that more than 50 foreign-born drivers have started at least one NASCAR Grand National/Nextel Cup race. Japan-based Toyota will be in the Nextel Cup series next season, and just this week, the new Red Bull Racing team announced it will be headed by their former Formula One team manager, Austrian Guenther Steiner.
So, in honor of Sunday's race in Mexico and this sudden influx of international flavor, we are proud to present the top 10 international moments in NASCAR history.
10. Racing Royal Marriage 2002-03
Richard Petty is arguably the most famous race car driver in American history, with children, streets and pets baring his name and even a career in local politics. His Brazilian equivalent is Emerson Fittipaldi, former F1 World Champion and two-time Indy 500 winner.
So when Emerson's nephew slipped behind the wheel of Petty's No. 43 car, it made headlines on both sides of the Panama Canal. Christian even sported The King's trademark black hat and shades, sporting a smile that melted the hearts of women across NASCAR Nation. Unfortunately, the Fittipaldi experiment only lasted 16 races before the two royal families parted ways.
9. The Rockingham Grand Prix 10/29/67
On October 29, 1967 at the still-new North Carolina Speedway a.k.a. "The Rock" Formula One legend and Scotsman Jimmy Clark took the green flag in the No. 66 Holman-Moody Ford. He finished 30th with a blown engine, but turned heads all weekend doing something common among all super-cool F1 drivers of the time, riding around the paddock on a fancy bicycle.
Local hero Benny Parsons stopped to chat with Clark and talked with him for the longest time before finally realizing "Clark didn't have the kickstand down and he wasn't leaning on one leg. His balance was so good he just sat there totally still with that bike upright. You have to figure that kind of balance had to have something to do with his amazing success in Formula One."
8. Laying the Woods to Indy 5/31/65
When Clark came to Rockingham, he wasn't a total stranger to the NASCAR posse. Among his friends were Glen and Leonard Wood, owners of the Wood Brothers Racing team. Just two years earlier, Ford Motor Company flew the Woods and their world famous pit crew to Indianapolis to pit Clark and his Ford-powered Lotus.
"It was an interesting mix of people," Glen recalls. "All these Englishmen and then all of us from Southern Virginia. But they could not have been nicer. Clark asked us what he needed to do, and I told him that he had to stop on the exact same mark each time so we weren't chasing the car or trying to stretch those short hoses. He said, 'You tell me where to stop, and I'll stop there.' He hit his mark every time."
And due to the fastest stops ever seen at Indy, the Scotsman ended the day drinking cold milk in Victory Lane.
7. Super Mario 2/26/67
Montona, Italy-born Mario Andretti started only 14 NASCAR races in his amazing career, mainly for the powerhouse factory team of Holman-Moody. In classic Andretti style, his lone win came in the sport's biggest race, dominating the 1967 Daytona 500. It was the biggest win of his career up to that point, considering he was still two years away from winning the Indy 500 and 11 years before his Formula One world title.
Andretti is still the only foreign-born racer to win a major NASCAR event.
6. Me Llamo Carlos 2000-02
Carlos Contreras became the first international racer to compete full-time in any of NASCAR's top three series, making 70 Craftsman Truck Series starts over three seasons, all with Petty Enterprises. The Mexican stock car veteran picked up five top ten finishes and topped out at 14th in points in 2001.
Contreras made six Busch Series starts last season for FitzBradshaw Racing and just this week announced plans to make 8-10 Truck starts for FBR this year.
5. Nice Win, Eh 7/18/58
The second (yes, second) NASCAR Grand National event run outside the United States was held in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium, the future home of the Toronto Blue Jays. Lee Petty of Randleman, N.C. outlasted Cotton Owens of Spartanburg, S.C. in a high-speed 100-lap shootout on the .333-mile paved oval.
For his efforts, Petty pocketed all of $575. On the public address system, sportscaster wannabe and future star of Bonanza and Battlestar Gallactica, Lorne Green. And oh yeah, some kid named Richard Petty made his big league debut, finishing 17th
4. Thunder Down Under 2/28/88
In 1964, Australian businessman and racer Bob Jane traveled from his hometown of Melbourne, Australia to Charlotte, N.C. to watch his first NASCAR race. He was hooked. Over the years he returned to Charlotte and Daytona, befriending NASCAR president Bill France Jr. and talking about holding a NASCAR event down under.
Jane opened the 1.1-mile Calder Park Thunderdome oval in 1987 and the following winter, France made good on his promise. The NASCAR contingent that showed up was comprised mostly of Winston West drivers, but Winston Cup superstars Neil Bonnett and Bobby Allison also tagged along. Allison's appearance electrified the crowd of 46,000, having won the Daytona 500 just two weeks earlier.
However, it was Bonnett who won the race, a nice 500-kilometer bonus sandwiched in between a pair of points-paying victories back stateside at Richmond and Rockingham.
3. Land of the Rising Sun 1996-98
NASCAR ran three exhibition races in Japan over three years, on the 3.6-mile road course in Suzuka City. Rusty Wallace won the first race, which also touted as the first time that Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced against each other. Competing against the NASCAR regulars were numerous local Japanese racers.
Mike Skinner won the final two events, earning the nickname "King of Japan", but the 1997 event made history when Goodyear had its first opportunity to trot out its new rain tire during a practice session downpour.
2. This Cat Has Claws 6/14/54
Forty-three cars hit the two-mile road course in Linden, N.J., a temporary track constructed on the runways of the Linden Airport. For this event, foreign cars were allowed to participate in Bill France Sr.'s series that had long been staunchly domestic-only. Mixed in with the usual gentry of Oldsmobiles, Hudsons, and Fords were 13 Jaguars, five MG's, one Porsche, one Morgan and an Austin Healey.
Road course ace Al Keller led 28 of 50 laps and handed Jaguar the win, still the only victory by a foreign car make in NASCAR's top series. At least until next year.
1. At Least He Wasn't in a Barrel 7/1/52
So now we come to the actual first points-paying race held outside of the United States. In July of 1952, 17 NASCAR Grand National cars did battle on a half-mile dirt oval on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
By the time the dust had settled on the converted horse track, only three of those 17 cars were still running. Buddy Shuman of Charlotte, N.C. won by nearly three full laps, getting his Hudson across the line ahead of eventual series runner-up Herb Thomas. The highest finishing Canadian was Albert Lemieux of Montreal, who rolled across the finish line 10th.
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.