Montoya brings new fans to tracks

The Colombian has a passionate Latin American following at this weekend's races.

Published November 19, 2006

HOMESTEAD - Jhon Castillo and his crew were ready in Section 230.

They waved their fan version of the Colombian flag up and down and cheered wildly as soon as Juan Pablo Montoya's face popped up on the screen at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The announcer hadn't even introduced Montoya.

Really, he didn't need to.

The cheering and chanting - "Pablo, Pablo, Pablo" - continued until Montoya started his engine and roared through his fourth Busch Series start on Saturday night.

Montoya, who makes his Nextel Cup debut today, is a South Florida favorite because he's a Miami resident. He's a Latin American favorite because he's Colombian.

Those two reasons - plus Montoya's success on the Formula One circuit - drew many, like Castillo, to their first NASCAR race.

Leonardo Gonzalez flew in from Panama to visit his family and watch Montoya race. But maybe not necessarily in that order. Gonzalez isn't just a Montoya enthusiast. He's a fanatic. The 37-year-old native Colombian named his son Juan Pablo, and he drives a Mercedes-Benz, which made the motor for Montoya's McLaren team. Now Montoya races a Dodge.

"It's going to be hard to change to Dodge," Gonzalez said. "But we're thinking about it."

Gonzalez's sister Nini lives in Miami, and she said the family probably will make plans for Daytona International Speedway.

The season-opener in February is a definite for Castillo, a native Colombian who has lived in Miami for three years. Castillo peeked through his binoculars to follow the No. 30 as he sat in the stands with his sister, Nina Castillo, and her husband, Andres Herrera, during Saturday's qualifying. Jhon Castillo and Herrera had No. 42 caps - Montoya's number in 2007 - on their heads and each had tied a fan version of the Colombian flag around his shoulders. Underneath his homemade cape, Castillo wore a soccer-style Montoya jersey he bought when he walked into the racetrack.

Montoya gear was limited on vendor row to a T-shirt and the soccer jersey. The $30 jersey, only 2 days old, easily was the most popular pick.

Jhon Castillo said the soccer style is what makes it appealing. Colombian soccer jerseys dotted the stands during Saturday night's race. And Castillo added that Colombians get just as rowdy at Formula One races as they do during soccer matches.

For some, it's a pride thing. Leo Pena, 39, and his 5-year-old son, Luis, walked on vendor row early Saturday afternoon. The 39-year-old Venezuelan native sported a Montoya hat.

"We are very supportive with our people," Pena said. "I think more and more Latin people will come here."

Kellie Dixon can be reached at kdixon@sptimes.com or 352 848-1430.