Canadian motorsports legend Ron Fellows knows in his line of work, timing is everything.
One of this country’s most successful racers (not to mention performance driving school owner, and consigliere to a number of top drivers), Fellows is a master of shaving fractions of seconds while whizzing around a circuit.
However as a young racer it was time off the track — the maddeningly long years-wait to get on the grid — that proved the hardest battle.
But in a strange twist, success at the track came with the purchase of his first road car.
Growing up in Bramalea, Fellows got his start in karts; moving up to Formula 1600 was an expensive foray that would ultimately sideline his racing career for a stretch.
As a machine operator for Consumer’s Gas, he used his earnings to purchase a 1600 series racecar, but the move cost him.
“Two years after I bought it, they introduced Formula 2000 and I couldn’t afford to go do that,” he says of the misstep.
“Race cars are race cars — generally they’re not worth anything after being used.
“I actually ended up selling that car to Paul Tracy’s dad and Paul used it to practise prior to starting in Formula 2000,” the three-time ALMS champion recalls.
Saddled with debt, Fellows bowed out for three “miserable” years as he describes the period, while paying off his racing tab. Finally in 1986, he quit his day job to become a racing instructor.
He also bought a car that would change his life forever: A Player’s/GM series 1986 Camaro IROC-Z.
Not just any ol’ Camaro, Fellows explains.
“It was basically out of a showroom stock series for the F-body cars back then. It was the Camaro and the Firebird, so you had your choice. And it came with a roll cage. You put a pretty simple racing seat in it but it came with a special order number so it came as a series car.”
With a sealed engine (to prevent tampering) the car was a street-legal race car. And with few modifications allowed, the playing field was level.
“(That) was the beauty of it. For those of us who felt like we had the skill, all the cars were equal. That was the concept: Equality with the cars and the best drivers will win and it’ll be a great show.”
With a race car and a road car, Fellows was back in the game.
“You could essentially drive them to the track and race them. It was a real ground-breaking series,” the racer recalls.
“There was real prize money and national TV and it was really the series that re-launched my career.”
Because the Camaro’s cost — around $18,000 — could be financed through GMAC, Fellows was able to pay for his ride in monthly installments.
The first Player’s/GM Challenge Series race was held in May, 1986 at Mosport (the track Fellows now co-owns) and the Camaro quickly paid dividends for the 26 year old. Off the track, it also paid off.
He says switching the car’s tires for snow and mud wheels and throwing his hockey equipment in the trunk for ballast made for a great ride.
“It was the most fun winter I can ever remember. I had two winters with these terrific snow tires and some ballast in the back of this Camaro and it was awesome — the thing could go through anything.”
In the series, Fellows was quickly running near the top of the grid (a stunning 73 cars were registered to compete the first year). He was soon able to make a living from sponsorship cash and prize money.
It was the beginning of Fellows’ professional racing career that has seen the versatile driver go on to do it all: Winning the 1989 Player’s/GM Challenge Series, setting a record number of wins in SCCA Trans-Am, wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, co-winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona, three consecutive American Le Mans Series Driver’s Championships (2002,03,04), 12 Hours of Sebring GTS class winner (’02, ’04) as well as wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series along the way.
He’s also worked as a development driver for GM’s Corvette Racing program and was honoured in 2007 with the first ever signed special edition Corvette: The Ron Fellows Championship Edition Corvette Z06 .
In 2011 he was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame.
(These days, he’s also co-owner of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park; he’ll be hosting a seminar about the facility at this weekend’s Canadian Motorsports Expo.)
But it was Fellow’s first car, the ’86 Camaro, that he says was the game-changer.
“If it hadn’t been for jumping in and buying that Camaro I likely wouldn’t have been able to make a living.”
Crediting supportive sponsors and “some great home-grown series” that helped him launch his career, he says motorsports has evolved into more of an integrated North American experience. While that is working, he notes he would like to find a way to blend entry-level racing and make it cost-effective here in Canada as well.
And what happened to ride that started it all?
After a couple of years on the road and on the track, Fellows says the Camaro was pretty used up. With technological changes – the 1989 Player’s/ GM series R 7U cars had a number of significant upgrades – it was time to trade up.
To another Camaro, ‘natch.
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