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Mexican contingent reveres forerunners

What the Rodriguez brothers started in the 1960s, a large crop of Mexico City drivers brings full force to CART.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- They're swapping sombreros for helmets. Actually, it has been going on for decades, but with the success of second- and third-generation drivers, the popularity of auto racing in Mexico is accelerating.

Mexico City is the hub. It has produced three starters in Sunday's St. Petersburg Grand Prix: Michel Jourdain Jr. and Mario Dominguez, who still live there, and Adrian Fernandez, who lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz. Rookie Roberto Gonzalez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and lives in Mexico City, and rookie Rodolfo Lavin lives in his native San Luis Potosi, about 175 miles north of Mexico City.

There also is Toyota Atlantic driver Luis Diaz, who in November tested Fernandez's Champ Car, and Carlos Contreras, the first native of Mexico to drive in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Why this emergence of drivers from Mexico City? "It's just such a big city," Dominguez said, "so it's more likely to have more than anywhere else in our country." It is a city with a metropolitan area of 16.5-million residents, second in the world to Tokyo's 20-million.

Jourdain said soccer "is still the big one in Mexico, like in so many other countries. But racing is the second biggest. Last year's grand prix (in Mexico City) was the biggest sporting event in the history of the country." It drew about 180,000 spectators for the race and about 300,000 for the weekend.

Before that, there hadn't been a grand prix in Mexico since 1992, when Formula 1 dropped the race from its schedule. "Now," Dominguez said, "there are more sponsors interested in supporting our drivers, and not only in the big time (CART). You'll see a lot of young drivers in the smaller categories, looking to move up to CART."

And Jourdain, with obvious pride, said the best Mexican drivers are achieving star status equal to other athletes. Maybe higher.

"Individually, we're right there on top with everybody," he said. "Soccer is just a lot of teams; here (in racing) it's basically yourself. ... Adrian (Fernandez) is really big back home (in Mexico), very big."

Talk to Mexican racers with a sense of heritage, and they may mention former drivers Josele Garza or Hector Rebaque, both of whom had brief stints in CART in the early 1980s. But the one common thread is Pedro Rodriguez. For all intents and purposes, he is where the history of Mexican racing began.

"I think when Pedro began winning he brought a lot of interest in Mexico to racing," Jourdain said, "and a lot of Mexican sponsors and companies and TV started following him. He was the first Mexican racing hero. When he died we didn't have another one, but what he did started it all for the rest of us."

Don Pedro Rodriguez was head of Mexico's police motorcycle patrols in the 1940s and, through various business interests, gained wealth and influence. His sons, Pedro (born in 1940) and Ricardo (1942) each had high-powered motorcycles by their respective 11th birthdays and, by the time each was 14, race cars. Each quickly established himself as an I'll-run-over-or-around-you competitor.

Ricardo was considered more gifted, but too daring as well. He was beginning to make a name for himself in Formula One -- already its youngest driver and point-scorer ever -- when he was killed in 1962 trying to win the pole for the inaugural Mexican Grand Prix at Magdalena-Mixhuca. Pedro, then in the auto importing business and treating racing more as a hobby, witnessed his brother's death and stopped competing for a while.

Pedro was a friend of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and, starting in the late 1950s, competed on its Grand National (now Winston Cup) series for more than a dozen years. Within a year of Ricardo's death, Pedro entered Formula One as a part-time driver. He won his first race as a Grand Prix regular, the 1967 South African GP, and the Belgian GP three years later. In 1968 he won the 24 Hours of LeMans.

He dominated sports car racing during 1970-71 with a fearless driving style, particularly on wet tracks, and was considered something of a character, taking with him his own supply of tabasco pepper for dining when he left Mexico.

Rodriguez was under contract to British Racing Motors in 1971 when, as was common then, he raced on a non-Grand Prix weekend. He was driving a Ferrari in an inconsequential sports car race in Germany and challenging for the lead when a slower amateur driver failed to see him and forced him into the wall, causing Rodriguez to perish in a fiery crash.

"That's how Pedro was," Jo Ramirez, a close friend and former McLaren team coordinator, told "If anybody offered him a wheelbarrow to race, he would go and race it."

The Magdalena-Mixhuca track opened in 1959. In its first event, a 500-mile race, Pedro beat his brother. When Ricardo died there three years later the track was renamed in his honor. Today, to honor both brothers, it is called the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

A horseshoe turn on Daytona International Speedway's road course is named after Pedro Rodriguez. So is the trophy awarded annually to Mexico's best race driver.

-- Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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