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AT 10 A.M. last Saturday the most powerful man in North American motor sports strolled across a bridge in the infield of Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The start of NASCAR's first-ever Busch Series race north of the border, the NAPA Auto Parts 200, was still more than five hours away, but already the grandstands along the 2.71-mile road course were nearly full—a fact that caused the chairman of NASCAR to go bug-eyed. "This crowd is bigger than I anticipated," said Brian France. "This shows there's a pent-up demand for our sport out there."
Kevin Harvick won Saturday's race in a controversial finish (box). But there was no doubt about the success of the event: With 130,000 fans showing up on Friday and Saturday, it was another step forward in France's grand plan to spread NASCAR around the globe. The Series currently includes two races outside the United States (in Montreal and Mexico City), and now France is eyeing the Moby Dick of emerging markets as his next target: China.
In late April, France spent five days in Beijing and Shanghai meeting with several groups, including corporations, media outlets and officials of the Shanghai Circuit, a new road course outside the nation's largest city. China recently passed Japan to become the world's second-largest car market behind the U.S.—Chinese vehicle sales rose 25.1% last year to 7.2 million, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers—and NASCAR views the explosion of China's auto industry as the perfect opportunity to start a stock car series (most likely one made up of Chinese drivers and Chinese teams). Such a NASCAR Far East series is still years away, but the groundwork is being laid.
" China is the new frontier for business, including sports business and motor sports," says David Carter, the executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China will be better positioned than ever to sample and possibly embrace new sports. It will be a major challenge to penetrate that market, but NASCAR is certainly learning how best to go about it, given its forays into Mexico and Canada."
France—who's also exploring the possibility of starting NASCAR-based series in Brazil, England, Germany and Japan—is adamant that he won't stage any Nextel Cup races outside the U.S. in the foreseeable future, a decision he might want to reconsider after what transpired in Montreal. At several Cup events this season large swaths of empty seats have been visible in the grandstands (neither NASCAR nor the tracks release attendance figures), but all the seats at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve were sold 24 hours before the green flag dropped, and thousands of fans paid $30 Canadian (about $28.50 U.S.) to sit in the grass along the winding course, in some cases 20 deep.
"Expansion to Canada is nothing but a good thing, because there are a ton of NASCAR fans up here," said Greg Biffle, who finished 20th in Montreal and 23rd in the next day's Cup race at Pocono, which was won by Kurt Busch. "I think we should drop a Cup race from a track that currently has two races and add Montreal to the schedule. Personally, I'd like to take away a race from either Pocono or Martinsville and get it moved to Canada."
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