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Driven to Be Diverse

Times Staff Writer

Citing the increasing influence of Latinos in this country, Time magazine recently named the 25 most influential, among them Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

NASCAR, despite its announced “Drive for Diversity,” would be hard pressed to find 25 Latinos in its top three divisions. But if a list were made, Adrian Fernandez and Armando Fitz would be at the top.

Fernandez, the former open-wheel driver who has been one of Mexico’s most popular motor sports personalities for years, has turned to stock car racing in the twilight of his career.

But who is Fitz?

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He is a Cuban, who, according to NASCAR, is the only minority owner of a team in its three elite levels -- Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck. His father-in-law, Felix Sabates, once owned teams but now has only a small percentage of Chip Ganassi’s program.

Fitz, 40, will have three Dodges in today’s Busch race at California Speedway, the Ameriquest 300. The drivers are David Stremme in No. 14, Stanton Barrett in No. 40 and Carlos Contreras in No. 12.

Contreras, from Mexico City, will be one of three Latinos in the race, joining Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr., another Mexican driver who has switched from open-wheel racing to NASCAR.

This will be Contreras’ 75th NASCAR race, most of which were in Craftsman Trucks. His first ride was also at California Speedway, on Sept. 3, 1999. He drove the No. 12 Hot Wheels Dodge that day; now he is back in a No. 12 Dodge.

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“What I would like, my dream you might call it, is to have an all-Hispanic team -- driver, crew chief, mechanics, even the [public relations] person,” Fitz said over lunch at the Beverly-Wilshire. “It might be a while yet because young Mexicans and other Hispanics never think of jobs in racing as a lifestyle because they are not aware of the opportunities. I think now, with a Busch race in Mexico and with well-known drivers like Adrian, Michel and Carlos racing regularly, it might change. It’ll take a while, but I’m working on it.”

From the progress Fitz has made in the nearly five years since he and his wife Mimi bought Sabates’ Busch team at the end of 2000 and decided to go racing, it is not too farfetched.

“I had worked for Felix for four years as team manager, but in 2000 he sold his team to Ganassi and they decided to drop the Busch operation,” Fitz said. “Mimi and I looked at each other and sort of said, ‘Let’s run our own team.’ Just like that, it all started.”

After running a partial schedule in 2001, the Fitzes teamed with Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox TV commentator Terry Bradshaw and launched FitzBradshaw Racing with Supercuts as its sponsor. The announcement was made in front of Fox headquarters in New York during NASCAR’s year-end party.

“Somebody told me it was a tribute to my marketing skills that I could get Supercuts to sponsor our car when one of its owners is bald,” Fitz said with a laugh, alluding to his friend and partner Bradshaw.

Kerry Earnhardt, Dale Jr.'s older brother, was the team’s first driver.

“It was sort of an emotional choice for Terry,” Fitz said. “He had always been a big fan of NASCAR and especially Dale Earnhardt. When he was grand marshal of the 2001 Daytona 500, he was the last person to give Dale a hug before Teresa [Earnhardt’s wife] when Earnhardt was getting ready to climb into his car.”

It was in that race that Earnhardt lost his life.

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By 2003, with Navy coming on as a full-time sponsor, FitzBradshaw expanded to two cars and this year added a third and also strengthened its position in an alliance with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

“Teams like Roush and Hendrick have shown the wisdom of multi-car teams,” Fitz said. “It gives you more testing input and it’s insurance so that if you lose a sponsor -- and that’s bound to happen sometime -- you have others to keep you going.”

The relationship with Ganassi-Sabates is that of a development team, FitzBradshaw working with young drivers getting them ready for Nextel Cup.

“Stremme is an example,” Fitz said. “He has driven with us this year and Ganassi has already named him as a replacement for Sterling Marlin in the Nextel Cup next year. As part of the deal, we got Marlin to drive for us in a couple of Busch races.”

FitzBradshaw Racing is still looking for its first win after a number of seconds and Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is getting antsy.

“Terry’s such a competitor, he can’t stand losing. I know, I play a lot of golf with him,” Fitz said. “But I try to remind him of how it was when he joined the Steelers. I tell him to remember 1970, his first season, and how it took four or five years before the team jelled with Lynn Swann and Franco Harris before they won their first Super Bowl.

“I also tell him, or try to, that racing is a much more difficult game than football. In football, there is only one loser and one winner. In NASCAR there is only one winner but there are 42 losers.”

Fitz knows football; he was a linebacker at Vanderbilt for four years.

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“My first game, as a freshman, our safety got hurt, so the coach told me to get out there and play safety,” Fitz said. “That was nerve-wracking enough, but the Maryland quarterback was Boomer Esiason and he was living up to his name. After that, I was a linebacker.”

Fitz left Cuba in 1967 when he was 2, arriving in Miami with his parents with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“My parents owned several sugar plantations and retail businesses in Cuba, but when [Fidel] Castro began to take possession of them, they decided it would be better to take their chances over here,” Fitz said. “They couldn’t speak a word of English. My first language was Spanish.

“After six months, we moved to Nashville, where an aunt was living. My father and mother got jobs in the same nursing home, working for a dollar an hour. My father started out sweeping the floor and ended up as head cook when he retired. My mother worked in the laundry room for 37 years before she died last year. I pleaded with her to retire and move to Charlotte to be near us, but she wouldn’t. She was almost like part of the building.”

Although his parents returned several times to Cuba, their son has never gone back.

“Someday I will go back. I have many aunts and uncles and cousins over there and I have some deeds to the beach property my family owned,” Fitz said. “Castro confiscated it years ago and I never expect to get it back, but after Castro is gone -- he can’t live forever -- maybe it could happen.”


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