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When the Toronto Star Wheels section made its debut in September 1986, auto racing in Canada was running in top gear. Two huge international events — the F1 Grand Prix in Montreal in June and the first Molson Indy in Toronto that July — had the motorsport nation buzzing.
And four of five distinctly Canadian racing series were alive and doing very well indeed.
You had the Player’s-GM Challenge Series (featuring showroom stock Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds and starring drivers like Robin Buck, Scott Maxwell, Peter Lockhart and David White) in which upwards of 65 cars would show up to race.
That’s right. Sixty-five cars.
There was the Rothmans-Porsche Challenge Series for stock Porsche 944s. A paltry (!) 29 cars were entered and drivers like Richard Spenard (who’s being honoured by the Canadian International AutoShow at its charity gala Nov. 16), Bill Adam and Kees Nierop would fight each other, hammer and tong.
The Honda-Michelin series was in full swing, pulling entries of 35 Civics, and the Canadian Tire/Export A F2000 series had 25 car-and-driver combos.
Although Tony Novotny had incorporated CASCAR in 1981, it was not in full swing in ‘86. It was on the cusp, however, of greatness and would go on in the ensuing 25 years to become Canada’s biggest and best national stock-car racing series before being rebranded as the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series.
Canadian racers were turning heads back then, too. Following on the heels of George Eaton, Gilles Villeneuve and Eppie Wietzes (road racing) and Richard Foley, Jim Bray, Vic Parsons, Earl Ross and Trevor Boys (NASCAR) came Alan Berg, making his mark in F1 (Osella) and this 17-year-old kid from Scarborough named Paul Tracy (another being honoured in 2012), who won the last Can-Am series race ever held in Canada that year.
Scott Goodyear, Ludwig Heimrath Jr. and all sorts of other guys (David Tennyson, et al) were starting to come into their own. And Horst Kroll won the very last Can-Am championship.
In the words of the late racing historian, Bob Brockington, Canadian racing had never looked so good.
It’s 2012 now, and racers like Tracy, the late Greg Moore, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani, Jacques Villeneuve, James Hinchcliffe — the list could go on and on — have made Canadians proud.
And the future looks bright for young tigers like Robert Wickens, Daniel Morad, Kevin Lacroix and a host of others apparently on their way to stardom, thanks in particular to the efforts of the national governing body, ASN Canada FIA, and its vice-president of competition, Paul Cooke, in particular.
But on the racing front, those four distinctly Canadian road-racing championships went the way of the dodo over the next 25 years and the Canadian NASCAR series is having its strings pulled from Daytona Beach.
So what happened?
Okay, three of those series — the GM Challenge, Porsche and the F2000 — were sponsored by tobacco companies. Marketing strategies change and they moved their moolah elsewhere. Eventually, legislation forced them out completely.
Honda pulled the plug on its series when it felt the promotion was tired. It was revived in the early 2000s to head off a possible Toyota-supported series but was then abruptly cancelled again.
The Canadian Touring Car Series has since been launched and has operated for several successful seasons but doesn’t have a major sponsor.
Novotny did all he could with CASCAR but reached a point where the only way it could grow was to become part of NASCAR.
To discuss some of the reasons for this adjustment in Canadian racing, and where we should — or could — go from here, I talked to five people who know their way around the sport: F. David Stone, retired Toyota executive and race photographer; Jerry Priddle, president of Accelerate Marketing and Communications, Ralph Luciw, who came up with the concept and ran the Honda series during both of its existences; John Graham, racing driver and motorsport promoter and entrepreneur (the Moosehead Grand Prix in Nova Scotia), and Brian Stewart, one-time Formula Vee and Formula Ford Canadian champion and an entrant for many years in the Firestone Indy Lights Series.
Luciw is optimistic about the future.
“These things are cyclical,” he said. “I have a feeling that there’s a growing interest in motor racing in this country again.”
Both Priddle and Graham noted that as well as the tobacco money disappearing, the beer money dried up too. Both said Molson and Labatt were huge supporters of Canadian racing in the 1980s and 1990s but both are now foreign-owned and the interest in auto sport as a marketing tool just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.
And, interestingly, both men were of the opinion that for a series to be launched and to survive in today’s world, it would take active involvement by a manufacturer.
But Graham said the approach to potential sponsors has to change.
“Once upon a time, if I told ABC Corp. that I’d put their name on my car, that would just about do it, “ he said. “But today, if I ask ABC Corp. for serious money, I have to tell them specifically how I will represent them and how I intend to compete with the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jays and all the other entertainment choices that are out there.”
Priddle noted, also, that in order for any series to succeed in 2012, there would have to be TV coverage and that the sports television landscape has changed.
“Back in the ‘80s, TV would use motor racing to fill a void in their programming schedule. They made money by selling advertising. That’s all changed. Now, if you want to get motor racing on TV, you have to pay for it and that’s changed things considerably.”
Stone thinks the demise can be traced to marketing, that there was a period in which the people didn’t know how to market themselves properly.
“Lots of companies were — and I think are — interested in auto racing but they weren’t ‘pitched’ correctly. Although it’s changing, there are still people in the business who don’t know how the corporate world works. They don’t understand that a business plan is put together in June and July and the money is allocated in September and October and that when January rolls around, the plan is executed.
“People in motorsport still go to these companies in January and are surprised when they’re told there’s no money available. They don’t realize they’re almost a year late.
“You know, lots of people can be grid marshals and corner marshals and all the other things that go into motor racing, but very few are smart enough, or have the knowledge, to make the sport work.”
For his part, Stewart wants the leaders of motorsport in Canada to get behind a Formula Ford 1600 series. That’s how his career started. Gilles Villeneuve’s, too.
“People, even down in the U.S., come up to me and say their kid wants to move on from karts and where should they go,” Stewart said. “USF2000 and Star Mazda costs a half-million dollars or more a season. 2A lot of people with talent don’t have that kind of money.
“But you could do a Formula Ford series for a lot less than that. A lot less. And the competition would be better. You could learn your craft. You could learn to be a racing driver.
“And it would be good value for a sponsor. Heck, Becker’s sponsored Formula Ford once upon a time, as did the Bulova watch company. A sponsor like that could do real well for themselves without having to spend a ton of money.
“I think that’s what we need to do in Canada. It might be a bit like starting over, but if that’s what we have to do, then we should do it.”