By Alan Baldwin
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - For the past few seasons, the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas has been the closest thing to a home race for Mexican Sergio Perez and his many fans.
But not any more.
This time 'Checo' arrives in Texas knowing that Sunday, for all the support he is sure to enjoy, is more like a warm-up for the following weekend's big party -- the thrill of Mexico's first grand prix since 1992.
That will be a first in more ways than one for the Force India driver because the 25-year-old, Mexico's only current Formula One driver, has no experience of motor racing at home on asphalt.
The man who leaped excitedly onto the podium in Russia two weeks ago, when he finished third for his fifth career top three finish, has only ever raced go-karts in Mexico.
"As a Mexican we didn't have much history in our sport. The last Mexican in Formula One was 30 years ago. So basically to come all the way to Formula One I had to leave home at the age of 14," he told Reuters in an interview.
"I basically did my whole career in Europe, I raced just a couple of years in karting in Mexico."
If racing in Mexico will be a highlight of his career so far, and another podium cannot be ruled out even if points are more likely, he is quick to qualify that by saying he hopes for greater things to come.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm here to win championships and races," he said. "It's not that I am very comfortable with what I have achieved, but it's something very special for me as a racing driver to race in my home country.
"No matter what result I get on Sunday, because on Sundays you never know what can happen, it will be just a very special moment in my career."
It is also not something Perez ever expected when he left home in Guadalajara as a boy to move to Germany and follow his dream of racing cars in Europe.
In those days, when talk of Mexico returning to the calendar sounded fanciful, he was in no hurry to come back.
"I thought this is my last race in Mexico and I hope I never come back to race in my country," he said. "I wanted to race out of Mexico."
A toddler when Britain's Nigel Mansell won in 1992 at the Mexico City circuit named after the country's greatest drivers, the late brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, Perez said a return home to race as a teenager would have signaled only failure.
It would have been the end of a dream -- one that could have ended equally abruptly in 2013 when he lost his seat at McLaren before Force India threw him a lifeline.
He returns home regularly enough now, this month driving Pedro Rodriguez's old BRM at the formal opening of a revamped high-speed circuit that he expects to provide plenty of excitement.
"My target was always Formula One, although we had many drivers in Indy Car, I wanted to make it big time," said Perez, who has benefited from strong backing from an early age by Mexican telecoms giant Telmex.
"I wanted to race against the best drivers in the world because I feel I am one of them. So I wanted to prove myself against the best (in Europe)."
What experience he did have of competing in Mexico, with his father driving long distances to get his son to kart tracks as far away from Guadalajara as Monterrey or Veracruz, was formative nonetheless.
"It gave me a good step in my career because at the age of 10 or 11 I was racing against people of 20 or 25. It's something that in other parts of the world I couldn't do," he said.
"So that really helped me in my career. I felt that those karting days were very good for me.
"Every time we traveled, it was at the very least 10 hours ... and after the race finished I slept in the van, I changed to my uniform clothes for school and my Dad drove me straight to school.
"It was how I lived my young years."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)