COLOMBIA NEVER FAR FROM MONTOYAS THOUGHTS
By: David Caraviello
November 25, 2011
Juan Montoya's duties in South Florida began well before the driver arrived at the race track. His first appearance during NASCAR's recent season-ending weekend was not in a firesuit, but in a sport coat. The scene was not Homestead-Miami Speedway, but a ballroom in the lavish Ritz-Carlton on Miami Beach. And he was surrounded not by race fans, but by the bold and the beautiful of the region's Latin community, impeccably-dressed men and high-heeled women brought together by a cause.
The last weekend of the season brings the coronation of NASCAR champions, of course, this year highlighted by Tony Stewart's improbable run to the Sprint Cup title. But for the past five years, it's also brought a charity gala hosted in part by Montoya and his wife Connie, with the aim of raising awareness and money for causes in their native Colombia. Montoya's Formula Smiles, which uses sports and recreation to help keep Colombian children in school, is one of four foundations that combine for the event.
"It's just to raise money, and to show awareness as to what the problems are, to make the people understand what kind of issues are in Colombia," Montoya said. "That's very important to us."
Montoya moved his residence to Miami five years ago, but still visits Colombia about five times a year, and it's clear his homeland is never far from his mind. Despite a wealth of natural resources, the South American nation has struggled with high rates of poverty, unemployment, crime, and in recent decades has been beset by kidnappings and violence. In its previous four years, the Miami gala has raised roughly $2.4 million to support projects ranging from heath and education to social and economic development.
"It's a good way to show people what we do, and show people here in the U.S. that we have a lot of issues and we have a lot of big problems in Colombia," Montoya said. "They need the help. If you can help the young kids, help keep them off the street, educate them, teach them how to share and be a part of something, I think it's very important."
The gala itself, though, is very far from those mean streets. About 600 attended this year's event, including NASCAR drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick and Brian Vickers; the drivers, Montoya among them, depart early to prepare for on-track activity the next day. A bevy of Latin stars, some of them from television networks such as Univision, enter along a red carpet as photographers shoot from its edge. There's a fashion show and a silent auction, the latter of which in past years has included items such as Montoya's driving gloves and boots. NASCAR, which is listed as a supporter of the event, gets a thank-you from the hosts on stage.
Within the NASCAR community, the end of the year brings a flurry of charitable activity. Last week in Homestead, the NASCAR Foundation donated $250,000 to a local hospital to build a neo-natal intensive care unit. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s foundation held an event in early November that raised $140,000 to provide resources to underprivileged youth. Martin Truex Jr.'s foundation raised $150,000 in an event this month that will benefit community programs. On Dec. 9, Ryan Newman's foundation will host a dinner and auction in Statesville, N.C., to benefit animal welfare. Kevin Harvick will host a Christmas concert Dec. 16 to benefit his foundation. Many other drivers, teams, and tracks hold similar initiatives.
But none of them are quite as glamorous as Montoya's event in Miami, which is capped by the arrival of "Modern Family" actress Sofia Vergara. The television star, who was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, is attending the gala for the first time. Vergara adds a sizeable degree of star power to the evening, and her arrival drives the photographers into a frenzy. Cameras click rapid-fire as the photographers all call Vergara's name -- "Sofia! Sofia!" -- trying to get the perfect shot.
How did organizers get an Emmy Award-winning actress to show up? "Just asked her," Montoya said with a shrug. "You'd be amazed. People from Colombia are pretty tight together."http://www.nascar.com