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Auto racing: Ace photographer Cassese dies

Published December 28, 2012

For years, I did a contract job with first, the Molson Indy Toronto, and later the Molson Indy Vancouver and then the Champ Car World Series races at Edmonton.

They called me the photo manager. In short, I kept the photographers assigned to cover the event in line. I got to know them all and I was very protective. I considered those wonderfully talented people to be my friends.

Among them was a guy for the Toronto Sun who was an ace. His name was Mike Cassese and he was a two-time National Newspaper Award winner. I have the sad news of reporting today that Mike died Thursday of a heart attack at the terribly young age of 53.

Mike didn’t work for the Sun any more. He’d moved to Reuters and it was another Sun photog-turned-Reuters shooter, Fred Thornhill, who paid him the ultimate tribute, calling him the best at what he did.

“He worked in the industry for more than 30 years, he was my best friend for 20 and I worked with him for 15,” said Thornhill, in a Toronto Sun story about Mike.

“He was the greatest guy anyone could call a friend. In his profession he was the best at the game for as long as I can remember. I respected him as a professional and loved him as a friend.

“I remember him as having a big heart and his heart gave out because he gave it all to us.”

My good friend Paul Madder, another ace photographer, sent me the photo above of Mike in action. It’s at one of the last Molson Indy races – likely 2004 – and Mike is in the blue shirt at right, shooting the winner, Sebastien Bourdais, being greeted by his wife just after he got out of his car.

Said Paul about Mike: “Always in the right spot at the right time; what a great guy.”

Visitation for Mike Cassese will be held Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 2-4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. at the Jerrett Funderal Home, 1141 St. Clair Ave. West, near Dufferin. The funeral will be Monday at 10 a.m. at the St. Clare Catholic Church, 1118 St. Clair Ave. West, one block east of Dufferin.

Mike leaves two young sons.

Now, as promised, here is a roundup of recent auto racing news.

But first, a brief discussion of the difficulty in coming up with a Top Ten list.

As a true-blue Canadian, I have to include Canadian content. The government (and we all obey the government in Canada . . .) decreed years ago that one-third of anything had to be Canadian. (That’s why, when you tune into Golden Oldies radio stations in Canada, one-third of the time you will hear Canadian studio musicians singing and playing hits made famous by musicians who aren’t Canadian because it’s the law. But I digress.)

In any event, that’s why at least seven of the Top Ten selections I make each year have to be Canadian. This year, it wasn’t hard because the renaming of Mosport and the cancellation of two major races were significant stories.

But my third Canadian choice, D.J. Kennington’s winning of the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in swashbuckling fashion, was a tough one because another Canadian, Bruno Spengler, won a pretty important national racing series in Germany.

But Kennington lives here and races here and a Canadian institution sponsors the series he won that races on tracks coast-to-coast, so that was the tie-breaker for me.

When I posted the list, I cheated a bit by citing four racing stories that I said came close to making the Top Ten (Juan Montoya’s dinging of the jet dryer at Daytona, for instance) but they weren’t the only stories I agonized over.

The world lost an automotive icon when Carroll Shelby passed away in 2012. His death made some of the other lists but this is not a Top Twenty, so some things have to hit the cutting room floor and that was one of them when it came to mine.

Another story discarded was F1 test driver Maria de Villota’s loss of her right eye in a straightline test crash at a small airport in England when she ran into the back of a truck. Some will argue it should have been included.

At the end of the day, you try for a list that has significance and staying power. And then you cross your fingers and hope you haven’t forgotten anything.

Okay, moving right along . . .

- It’s interesting that in a very short period of time following Randy Bernard’s exit as CEO of IndyCar and Mark Miles’ ascension to the top job in the company that controls the series that Firestone signed on through 2018 as the series’ tire supplier.

Bernard did some things really well and he handled other things really badly and the tire supplier situation was front-and-centre in the really badly column.

Shortly after he took over, his procrastination in this area resulted in Firestone announcing it was leaving. After the car owners went crazy, Bernard was able to talk Firestone into returning but at a 40 per cent increase in the cost of tires, which did not go over well with the owners at all.

Rather than learning a lesson, Bernard was still screwing around with the tires and had been talking to Continental Tire about becoming the supplier prior to being asked to resign.

So he walks the plank and – bingo! – a long term contract is signed with Firestone. Think there’s a connection? Of course there is.

– The first big racing event of the 2013 season is not the Rolex 24 at Daytona but the Chili Bowl midget tournament indoors at the huge Expo Center in Tulsa, Okla., Jan. 8-12.

Many of the big names from all the big racing series (NASCAR, NHRA, etc.) attend and more than 250 entries are whittled down over four nights to where the final 24 go at it in the A Main on the Saturday night.

Tony Stewart will be there, as will Glenn Styres, owner of the Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford. In fact, Styres in the only Canadian I can find in the entry list.

He’ll try to battle his way into the fast 24 during qualifying and heats on Friday night, the 11th. Go Glenn!

The event is “owned” by the Swindell family, though. Sammy Swindell won the Chili Bowl in 2009 and his son Kevin has won it every year since. They’re both entered again.

– At that same time, Speed TV will start to broadcast live from Daytona Beach. First up will be Sprint Cup testing Jan. 10-12 and the channel plans 21 hours of coverage of the test divided between television, the Speed.com website, Twitter and Facebook.

This test will be the first time the new generation of Sprint Cup cars will be on track together and there are suggestions the sessions will be critical in determining whether one manufacturer or another has a bit of an edge.

The no-name Car of Tomorrow is gone, replaced by cars that actually look – a bit, anyway – like the cars we actually find in showrooms manufactured by Ford, GM and Toyota.

The test will kick off Speedweeks in the Daytona area, where most of the attention is centred on the big track but where there’s all sorts of other action at places like Volusia County (sprint cars) and New Smyrna (late models, modifieds) speedways.

Speed TV’s plans for the Rolex 24 include going live on Speed from 3 p.m. till 11 p.m. on Sat., Jan. 26; live streaming video on Speed.com from 11 p.m. till 9 a.m., and then from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. back on Speed TV.

Bob Varsha will host the coverage. Play-by-play will be provided by ex-driver Brian Till.

– Richard Buck, who was a mechanic with Roger Penske’s IndyCar operation for 11 years and was crew chief on five of the Captain’s Indy 500 winning entries, has been promoted by NASCAR to managing director, Competition Grand-Am and manager director, Touring Series NASCAR under which the Canadian Tire Series is organized.

Brad Moran, who’s been director of the NASCAR Canada series, is now director of Touring Series, NASCAR, and will report to Buck.

- Who says the Ontario government’s bone-headed decision to kill horse racing in this province (I mean, can anybody explain that?) by eliminating slots at race tracks has claimed its first stock-car racing victim.

According to Mike Davies, writing in the Peterborough Examiner, there will not be a summer Friday night stock-car racing series at Kawartha Downs and Speedway in nearby Fraserville as there has been for the last 14 or 15 years.

The owners say they’ll rent out the track for special events (the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series finale will be held there Sept. 21, 2013) but there won’t be regular racing.

- Hey, want a job in motorsport? Go to speedsportjobs.com, a new service website launched just before Christmas by a Canadian company.

In a release, H3R Human Resources Services of Toronto says it hopes to bring the global motorsports community together in one place where employers can find the talent they need.

First up are three positions being advertised by AIM Autosport of Woodbridge, which is expanding to two Ferraris for the 2013 Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series.

– Sad news from Niagara. Stan Friesen, a legend in the Canadian short-oval, dirt-track racing industry, died at his home in St. Catharines last Sunday of cancer at age 79.

Originally a driver of big-block modifieds, Friesen owned speedways and promoted races for most of the last 40 years, starting with the purchase of Merrittville Speedway outside Thorold in 1970. He eventually sold Merrittville to concentrate on owning and promoting the track in Ransomville, N.Y.

The business was a family affair and he was helped by his wife Diane; sons Jamie, Joel and Alex, daughters-in-law Yvonne and Trish and grandchildren Stewart (now a dirt Modified star in his own right), Heather, James-Michael, Russell and Curtis.

Jamie and Joel Friesen (Alex died in 1996) plan to continue owning and promoting Ransomville Speedway.

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