NASCAR's efforts to captivate an international audience received a shot in the arm when Chip Ganassi announced Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya would drive the No. 42 car in the NEXTEL Cup and Busch Series next year.
The Colombian driver's racing resume expands the globe. The six-year veteran of Formula One has seven wins in the series along with the 1999 CART championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory. Montoya said he's ready for the adjustment of racing a 1,200-pound open-wheel car to a 3,400-pound stock car.
When people think of moving from Formula One to NASCAR, some people think I'm crazy, but I think it's exciting. I think it's a great challenge for my career," he said. "You have 36 races and race against really great guys, and I think sometimes people don't know how tough it is out here and how many great drivers are out here."
The move makes Montoya the first Formula One driver to compete full time in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. He'll replace Casey Mears, who move from the Texaco-Havoline sponsored team at the end of the year for Hendrick Motorsports.
The announcement caught his soon-to-be competitors by surprise. Jeff Gordon, winner of NASCAR's most recent race at Chicagoland Speedway, was excited about the move.
"I thought he did a great job in my car then," Gordon said about his experience with Montoya. "It showed me that he's got a lot of talent and he's going to bring a lot of talent. I think that he brings a lot more than that."
Gordon and Montoya swapped race cars in 2003 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Montoya getting a taste of the stock car racing while circling the infield road course at the historic track.
As NASCAR has continued to implement diversity efforts, none is much bigger than the one they received Sunday.
NASCAR president Mike Helton says the arrival of a Latino driver can expand the popularity of the sport to new borders. The driver has a loyal fan base in Latin America, an audience NASCAR has longed to captivate.
"He's an international name, a successful open-wheel driver in multiple series, and so it's just a historic moment," Helton said.
Montoya will finish the remainder of the Formula One season driving for McLaren-Mercedes. After the conclusion of the season he said he would get up to speed on the differences in the race car by testing in order to prepare for the Daytona 500.