By Ron Lemasters Jr.

Jorge Arteaga hails from a little farther south than is usual for a NASCAR driver, but he grew up wanting to be in the field of 43 at Daytona just like a kid from Alabama or Georgia.

“When I was very young, I remember watching the Daytona 500 and I knew then I wanted to be in that race someday, like those racers,” the 24-year-old Arteaga said recently before competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season opener at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I started doing some racing in Mexico and, fortunately the next year, NASCAR came to Mexico and began sanctioning races there creating an opportunity for me.”

Jorge Arteaga (NASCAR Home Tracks)

That opportunity right now is with Drive for Diversity and the Rev Racing team, which fields four cars in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Division. Rev Racing is coming off the most successful season in the history of NASCAR Drive for Diversity, which is in its ninth season as one of NASCAR’s leading on-track initiatives.

In 2011, Rev Racing collected six wins in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and had three drivers finish in the top 10 in series points. The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West is the highest level of NASCAR’s developmental race series, and many drivers have used it as the stepping stone to the three national NASCAR series.

So, how does a racer go from Aguascalientes, Mexico, to Bristol, Tenn.?

A lot of hard work, a good bit of talent and a whole lot of drive is the way it worked for Arteaga.

“I came from the NASCAR Mexico Series, and it’s just a matter of learning all I can from my crew chief and my teammates,” said Arteaga, who earned a spot on the Rev Racing roster via the D4D combine. “I’m the first Hispanic driver to be accepted into the program and now have the chance to be trained, coached and developed by an American NASCAR team. It’s a different experience for me, because in Mexico we don’t get the opportunity to race NASCAR as frequently as we can here in the U.S.

“This program gives me the opportunity to race more and develop my skills under NASCAR trainers. Hopefully that will be there when I take the next step up, too.”

Arteaga’s already made impressive strides as a driver. He has 12 top-10s in 49 career NASCAR Toyota Series starts in Mexico. And there’s a little bit of rock star to him, as well.

During the 2010 racing season, Arteaga was filmed for a reality TV series entitled NASCAR Mexico 24/7, which followed the behind-the-scenes happenings of NASCAR from the perspective of the FCV Racing team. It was broadcast on Speed TV in Latin America during race weeks.

In 2008, Arteaga founded a charitable program called Equipo Nutricion (the Nutrition Team) in partnership with La Huerta and Red Baron to provide support to Mexico’s poor and malnourished. He and his sponsors have donated 12 tons of food to local food banks in each NASCAR Mexico race city and raised awareness for malnutrition and obesity by conducting chats in schools.

While Arteaga is used to the constant travel that goes hand-in-hand with racing as a profession, there are a few things he’s working hard to improve.

“English all the time is something I had to get used to,” he said with a grin. “One of the smaller changes, I guess, was just getting used to the change in weather between here and my home in Mexico. In Mexico, it’s always warm. But here I have to get used to driving in colder conditions, too. The training here is a bit tougher via the coaching and workshops that teach us drivers to endure a four-hour race without being nervous or tired. But, I love the training here and it’s really working for me.”

Mexico has always had a proud racing tradition. Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez were huge stars and are still spoken of with reverence. But they were open-wheel and sports-car racers. Arteaga chose NASCAR.

“I like the culture and I like the cars themselves,” he said. “I enjoy some Formula One racing, which is popular in Mexico, too, but I enjoy NASCAR more. I enjoy the feeling of teamwork and how the racers likeJimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. work with the fans. In fact, one of the best things about NASCAR for me is enjoying the fans. The fans follow you all the way — no matter where you start or no matter where you finish, the fans will always be there.

“It’s kind of a relationship between the fans and the racer. In Formula One racing, the fans may support a team overall, but in NASCAR, the fans support the driver. They cheer for the driver. They support us and we are really grateful for that.”

Speaking of Earnhardt, Arteaga has won three consecutive most popular driver awards in the NASCAR Mexico Series and is known as the “Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Mexico,” a fact he chuckles upon hearing.

“That’s what I appreciate so much from the fans,” he said. “NASCAR is fairly new in Mexico. It only started in 2008, and the first driver to win it was my teammate Carlos Contreras. The following years, I was really surprised to win that [most popular driver] award because there have been drivers who have been racing 30 years, and I’ve only been racing for four. So, this is real appreciation from the fans, for me and for NASCAR. The fans are truly important.”

Bristol Motor Speedway has a reputation the world over as a tough track to get around, and while Arteaga was confident going in, the world’s fastest half-mile had the advantage. Arteaga was involved in a crash on the front stretch on Lap 30 of the Pro Series East race and finished 30th.

Undeterred, Arteaga is ready to move on and compete.

“I want to be racing cars in the biggest leagues of NASCAR eventually,” he said. “I really want to race in Daytona one day. Right now, I’m racing in the local series, but I’m looking forward to moving up the ranks. When I was a child, I said I would race at Daytona and it’s my dream.

“I also hope to be able to encourage more Hispanics to support our people’s representation in this sport. I want to be a Mexican driver — a Hispanic driver who’s not only representing my country, but also my dreams.”

Indeed, NASCAR knows no boundaries.

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