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Rodrigo Sanchez's role to bring Austin up to speed

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In 2002, Rodrigo Sanchez competed in his first motor sports race. He drove a go-kart in Mexico City.

"And I did really good," the Austinite says, cracking a rare full smile. "From then on, I took it more seriously. I liked the sensation of driving, of having fun, of adrenaline."

Now the marketing manager for the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Sanchez, 27, realizes it takes more than grit to race in the big leagues. It takes bucks. A lot of them.

After that first thrill, Sanchez raced in various pro series. That's when he discovered that it takes $7 million to $10 million to cover the annual costs of a one-vehicle IndyCar team. A top NASCAR team? Oh, $20 million or so a year. And forget about affording a Formula One team. They go for $50 million to more than $400 million — half of that for the cutting-edge engine.

"Right now I'm focusing on the business side of it," he says. "I hope I can come back and do a few races for pleasure."

In a social setting, Sanchez's average build doesn't set him apart as a potential race car driver. Yet his jet-black hair and prominent brow suggest he could pull off the part if cast in a movie, something along the lines of the 1966 Formula One roller-coaster ride "Grand Prix."

Sanchez did, however, enter the motor sports field with a superb role model for business and showmanship. In Mexico City — then New Jersey and Texas — his mother, Monica Peraza, launched a thriving import business. She also set in motion at least two Austin nonprofits: MexNet Alliance, which helps Mexican immigrants with business skills, and the Hispanic Alliance for the Performing Arts, an advocacy and education coalition.

"I could always see how his face transformed when he was involved with racing," Peraza says. "And of course I have been always very worried of him racing since it is such a dangerous sport. So I always dreamt that he would get involved with the marketing part of racing. I am thrilled that he is in Formula One."

Business was like a third language for the multinational family.

"My parents worked at home," he says, while declining to talk specifically about his dad. "So I was involved in their business meetings. I'd hear their phone calls. I learned how to reach out to people and maintain relationships. I think that's been part of my success so far."

Sanchez attended the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, then studied marketing at Concordia University Texas. Real-world Formula One experience, of course, differs from most of the cases he studied in school.

"It's global," he says. "One week they are in Malaysia, then in China, then in Abu Dhabi."

The fact that Mexico can claim two drivers in Formula One — Sergio Perez is a full-time race driver, and Esteban Gutierrez is a reserve for the Swiss-based Sauber team — bodes well for the November U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas. Sanchez points out that despite the obvious air and ground transportation limitations, Austin is particularly well situated for sports tourists arriving from both coasts and Latin America.

Marketing to Mexico might be the easy part of his job. He must also focus on educating Texans about the sport and letting Austinites know about the potential impact on the city. Locals are justifiably concerned about issues such as traffic and noise. Yet equally vital is the way citizens interact with guests for an event that didn't spring up from grass-roots Austin culture and may never be embraced by wide swaths of the population.

"From the track to downtown Austin, there will be a series of activities and celebrations that lead up to the race," Sanchez says. "With plenty of things for people of all ages — concerts, parties, gatherings, press conferences, driver appearances."

His company will soon release a schedule of F1-sanctioned events.

One thing Austinites might not realize: Some tickets and some premium seating licenses are still available. And if you are thinking about attending, Sanchez recommends a little boning up on the point system that awards, at the end of the tour, prizes for best driver and best "team or constructors," who each field more than one car.

"It's not your typical American race," he says. "There's something about the feeling that's hard to put in words. You are there early in the morning for the practice session. You smell the burning tires and gas, hear the noise of the crowd and engines. It fills you with joy and excitement."

Contact mbarnes@statesman.com or 445-3970