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Memories of 2013 Our ‘newsmakers of the year’ breathed new life into Mosport

Published December 30, 2013

Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the Bowmanville-area race track once (and often still) called Mosport, has been a name among names since the day it opened in 1961.

The best racing drivers from far and wide have long congregated there to test their mettle, and the list of those who have conquered it is a motorsport hall of fame unto itself.

But Mosport had begun to show signs of age. With new racing facilities being built around the globe, the lack of investment in Mosport left it looking pale by comparison.

Then, in 2011, the track was sold to people who genuinely cared about this hallowed ground, who valued its history and understood its worth, and who were willing to do what was needed to set things right.

In two short years, Mosport has undergone a renaissance, and the rewards are already being reaped. The 2013 season was the most successful in decades, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that greater things are yet to come.

For their vision, execution and drive to restore this venerable race track to a position of glory, the team leading Canadian Tire Motorsport Park — co-owners Ron Fellows and Carlo Fidani, and long-time president and general manager Myles Brandt — are the 2013 Wheels Newsmakers of the Year.

DON’T MISS: Our auto writers share their 2013 highlights; all week on Wheels.ca

Mosport’s heyday was from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when the facility was operated by long-time owner Harvey Hudes and his partner Bernie Kamin.

Fellows, a Canadian road-racing legend, formed a connection with the track during that period. He was just 9 when he attended his first car race, the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix, won by Jacky Ickx. He was instantly bitten by the racing bug and went on to learn and hone his craft at the same track.

But his connection with the place runs even deeper. Not only did Fellows know Hudes personally in those days, but he credits him with advice that helped dictate his racing career.

“He steered me away from formula cars, which were becoming a bit of an issue for me in terms of my being 6-foot-2,” Fellows recalls. “He said, ‘The career opportunities for you are going to be much better in sports car racing. If you can get hooked up with a manufacturer, you’ll have a nice, long career.’ ”

After three decades at the helm, Hudes died in 1996 at age 63, and the future of Mosport became uncertain.

Mosport changed owners several times, eventually winding up in the hands of Don Panoz and his Panoz Motor Sports Group.

He made several changes to the track itself — the surface was widened, pit lane was extended, runoffs were enlarged — but investments in the facility’s other infrastructure were left wanting.

“The track was doing okay,” Brandt recalls. “However, we were basically staying at the same levels for five, six years.”

Meanwhile, Fidani, a prominent Toronto real-estate developer, had become a frequent visitor to the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School in Las Vegas.

The two men talked about their shared passion for motorsport in Canada. The next thing they knew, Fellows was on the phone checking into Mosport’s availability.

It wasn’t for sale, but as Fellows and Fidani made their case, it became evident that a sale would be in the best interests of everyone involved.

Their vision, and particularly Fidani’s role, stood out for Brandt.

“When I met Carlo, immediately I realized that he would be the right person to purchase the track, in that he saw it as a business venture,” Brandt says. “He envisions building the facility not only for today but for the future.”

Once the sale was complete on June 1, 2011, the leap into action was immediate. Just six weeks later, the seed was sown for the acquisition of a coveted NASCAR event — a Camping World Truck Series race.

“I was at the (NASCAR Sprint) Cup race at Watkins Glen in 2011,” Fellows recalls. “We got rained out, so I got an opportunity to talk to Steve O’Donnell (NASCAR’s senior vice-president of racing) about what we were doing with the place. It took a lot of work. It was a little over a year later when we got our first (formal) meeting.”

After many phone calls, emails and a visit by officials, the truck race deal was eventually done.

But that meant there was much work to do and not much time to prepare the facility for such a big event.

Fellows knew where not to tinker. “Every single driver will tell you this place is special because of the layout. To me, that’s the most important part that needs to be preserved.”

But where change was necessary, and where Fidani’s experience became pivotal, was with the surrounding infrastructure.

“We’re building for the customers of the future, and their expectations are far different than the group that was there in the ’60s and ’70s,” Fellows explains. “We needed to make the place a lot more user-friendly, from bridge access to the camping, the viewing sightlines, the bathrooms, and then, on the corporate side of it, to create an experience that you can’t get anyplace else.”

That comes in the form of the multi-storey event centre that now sits on the outside of the start-finish straightaway.

The impetus was two-fold: to build modern workspace and corporate entertainment facilities, and to knock down the old administration building — known as the Castrol Tower — to make room for an expanded pit lane for NASCAR.

That tower had a long history, and a long list of racing legends who’d walked its halls. “I have pictures with Sterling Moss in my office, and Paul Newman in my office, and stuff like that,” Brandt says.

But the tower had to go. “We were in the Castrol Tower until Oct. 31 of 2012 and, on Nov. 1, we were already taking it down,” Brandt recalls. “We were moving out while the crane was parked in front of the door, so we didn’t have a lot of time for a lot of emotion.”

As work continued, the team realized they needed a corporate partner to help promote the rejuvenated race track. Fellows leveraged an existing relationship to bring in Canadian Tire.

“It was very important for us to find a primary marketing partner who also felt very passionate about our facility and motorsport,” he says. “With Canadian Tire Corp., we couldn’t have asked for a better partner — iconic, with a rich history of their own and deeply Canadian.”

“They’ve opened some doors for us that wouldn’t have been opened without them,” Brandt adds. “They have definitely helped us bring bigger crowds to the facility.”

As the 2013 racing season began, the payoff came swiftly and decisively. Each track day and race weekend brought renewed praise, and fewer fans were dwelling on nostalgia.

It culminated with the inaugural Chevrolet Silverado 250, the NASCAR truck event held over Labour Day weekend.

More than 70,000 people piled into the place over the three days, reminding many fans of the track’s busiest weekends in the ’70s.

They also raved about everything from the improved sightlines and the traffic flow to the garbage collection and the new washrooms.

Up in the head office, the tone was stoic, yet satisfied.

“We quietly set our sights high internally, but (the NASCAR weekend) certainly met our expectations,” says Fellows.

Attention has already turned to future improvements. The upper paddock area has been levelled and repaved to create 30 per cent more space — needed for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race confirmed for next July.

And driver-training facilities have been improved, although that came at the expense of the Mosport Speedway oval track. Brandt says work is already under way to replace the current circuit with an expanded driver development centre.

“The problem we had was that the existing driver development track was a bit narrow,” he explains. “It was too small for some of the groups that couldn’t get onto the Grand Prix track but still needed dates.”

The new track will feature two configuration options (at lengths of 2.2 and 2.9 km), a skid pad, a pit lane, and a multi-storey event centre with classrooms and other facilities.

Fellows, Fidani and Brandt are proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.

“Collectively, we feel like caretakers,” Fellows says. “We’ve got an icon here, a Canadian sporting icon that needed some work. I had a partner who was very keen to help grow the opportunity for the place.

“There’s a sense of responsibility to go forward and leave something better than when we got here.”

wheels@thestar.ca

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