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Nelson Piquet Jr. fired the shot heard around the world – literally – and in the process put X Team Racing squarely on NASCAR's map. Piquet, the former Formula 1 driver trying to climb the NASCAR ladder, won the first-ever visit for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East to Bristol Motor Speedway in March.
The victory may have been the second for X Team Racing in the series, but it likely served as its most significant to date.
“I think it was special winning in Bristol. The track is an icon (in American motorsports),” said Miguel Abaroa, X Team Racing's manager. “It's amazing. It's part of the branding of the team, something where we could say, 'OK, here are our results. Here is what we worked for all winter, here is where we are.'
“It's reassurance with what we're trying to do here.”
X Team Racing started prior to the 2011 season, a multi-car team fielding NASCAR's rising stars – drivers like Matt DiBenedetto, Coleman Pressley and Alex Bowman. But when Geraldo Rodrigues assumed sole ownership of the team this winter, he also made a bold move to change the philosophy of X Team Racing on the whole.
Now, X Team Racing is a striking illustration of how NASCAR's development series have changed. All three of its drivers in 2012 are Latin American. Mexican Daniel Suarez, who joined the team for the final half of last season, Brazilian Carlos Iaconelli and Angolan Duarte Ferreira will run the remainder of the season for X Team – a sign of the diversity in one of NASCAR's top development series.
|DANIEL SUAREZ: DRIVER PAGE | TWITTER|
|CARLOS IACONELLI: DRIVER PAGE | TWITTER|
|X TEAM RACING: WEBSITE | TWITTER|
|NASCAR DIVERSITY: WEBSITE | TWITTER|
|PIQUET PERFECT AT BRISTOL|
|NASCAR NEXT9: CLASS OF 2011|
For the season opener at Bristol, 13 of 35 the starters were minorities, women or hailing from outside the United States. Another 10 of the 29 starters at Greenville-Pickens Speedway met the same criteria. No other U.S.-based series under the NASCAR banner boasts the same diversity.
Where Rev Racing has helped open the door for minorities as part of the NASCAR Drive For Diversity initiative, X Team Racing has complemented the effort by similarly opening the door for Hispanic drivers hoping to make it up the NASCAR ladder.
“I think we are in a good position now, and the team wants to learn and wants to have young drivers, different drivers, to learn about how to drive in America,” said Suarez, 20, who finished in the Top 10 at Greenville two weeks ago and sits eighth in the K&N Pro Series East standings through two events. “Other teams maybe have that, too, maybe they don't, but I think it's really good for me and my teammates here.”
The team is based in the Charlotte, N.C., area – though its focus is clearly hundreds of miles to the southwest.
“We understand that Latin American drivers, since forever, have been focused on open-wheels,” said Abaroa, noting that Rodrigues previously worked with Brazilian drivers like Gil de Ferran and Tony Kanaan in both Formula 1 and IndyCar over the past three decades. “We've seen the transition from open-wheel into NASCAR, and we've seen that it doesn't really work. Maybe (Juan Pablo) Montoya is the only case that he's been able to hang in there with the other guys.
“We're committed to the (K&N) Series, because we think it's a great series. It's not easy for (Latin American drivers) to race here at first, but it teaches them and there's a lot of competition. We're competing against Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Michael Waltrip Racing.
“Our goal is to take the young drivers turning to NASCAR and have them say, 'Hey, I can make a career here.' X Team is the first step.”
The growth of NASCAR through the NASCAR Toyota Series in Mexico has boomed over the last half-decade, increasing awareness of the opportunities available in NASCAR. The cars in the Toyota Series are lighter with less horsepower – more like North American Late Models than K&N cars – and the schedule has shifted from predominately road courses to focus on ovals.
Suarez knew as soon as he tested a K&N car that he wanted to give it a shot.
“When I switched to these big cars, it was really different for me,” said Suarez, who credited crew chief Coleman Pressley with easing his transition. “The teams, the drivers, the cars, the tracks in NASCAR, they are all very difficult (from a competition standpoint), but I think it's the best racing in the world. To watch Formula 1 or GP 2, it's really different.”
While the Toyota Series has opened eyes to Hispanic drivers when it comes to choosing NASCAR as a career, there remains the challenge of getting a foothold in a world where there haven't been many opportunities for Latin Americans.
That's where X Team Racing hopes to change things.
Brazil's Carlos Iaconelli Getty Images
“We don't have a secret recipe here,” Abaroa said. “There hasn't been a Hispanic driver to come up the ranks to Sprint Cup yet. We're working on the tools for that. It's tough for us in that sense. We're looking in the next years, hopefully, that we'll have a position where we can be funded ourselves and pick and choose our drivers.”
If the team can do that, Abaroa believes it will be able to develop enough talent to crack the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series and, eventually, the Sprint Cup Series.
Piquet's win at Bristol last month only served as proof to X Team Racing management that the organization is headed in the right direction.
“There are many obstacles. I guess one big one is that when you talk about Latin American drivers coming into NASCAR, NASCAR is a very American sport,” Abaroa said. “The diversity in the sport is changing. When we talk about international drivers, we're talking about sponsorship from international companies – but it's very hard to get international companies involved in development series.
“If you're not in Sprint Cup, it's really tough.”
It may be tough, but the team seems up to the challenge. Suarez posted a front-row qualifying effort in the K&N Pro Series West race at Phoenix in February, parlaying that into a career-best finish of third. Iaconelli finished sixth in the same event.
“It's definitely a different kind of pitch we have to make (to potential sponsors),” Abaroa said. “We're a different kind of team, but we're also kind of a niche. We're different in the sense that we have Mexican, Brazilian, and Hispanic drivers at the end of the day. Other teams don't have that.
“We're fine with the sales pitch being a little bit harder, because we also like the fact that we bring something a little bit different than other teams are able to bring.”
Mexico's Daniel Suarez is competing in both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and NASCAR Toyota Series in 2012. Getty Images