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Dario Franchitti and Canada’s hip-pocket racers

Published June 20, 2012

The Honda Indy Toronto is just two weeks away and three-time winner Dario Franchitti will be back to defend his 2011 victory.

Franchitti doesn’t have to worry about where the money comes from in order for him to go racing. In fact, he’s a millionaire who flies his own helicopter and drives road cars that most of us can only dream about. (Last year, in conversation with reporters at a Target media conference at the CNE, he made reference to “one of my Ferraris.”)

Contrast that with a group of champion Canadian racers I spent time with last weekend who paid for just about everything they did on track out of their own hip pockets.

Eppie Wietzes, Bill Brack, Gary Magwood, Walt MacKay, Craig Fisher and Ludwig Heimrath were “Canadian legends” honoured at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park during the Canadian Historic Grand Prix presented by the VARAC International Vintage Racing Festival.

A don’t have space to relate what each of them talked about, but two of the reminiscences had to do with money.

Wietzes, for instance, talked about one of the first cars he raced, a Sunbeam Alpine.

“Paul Cooke (then a mechanic, now vice-president of competition and karting director of ASN Canada FIA) has a way with words,” said Wietzes. “He talked Rootes (the Alpine’s manufacturer) into giving us a car. We ordered one with wire wheels, a radio, a detachable hard top, the works. Then we took all the extras off and sold them and that was how we got the money to race the car that season.”

Brack remembered picking up Graham Hill at the Toronto airport before the 1968 Canadian Grand Prix at Le Circuit-Mont Tremblant.

“I’d rented a ride in a Lotus for $7,000,” Brack said. “Hill was in Toronto to meet some sponsors and then we were both going on to St-Jovite.

“I was really excited about driving the Lotus and I was really excited to meet Graham Hill. So, as I was driving him into the city from the airport, I told him about driving his backup car. He looked at me as if I was positively nuts.

“ ‘Not bloody likely,’ he said.

“True to form, Colin Chapman hadn’t told Hill about either renting out the car or the money I’d paid.”

Brack was certainly prescient when discussing Chapman and finances. The Lotus legend died (in 1982) before he’d have been sent to jail for his involvement (with John DeLorean) in the ripping off of £10-million from the British government in the designing and building of a stainless steel sports car.

He didn’t tell anybody about that money, either.

Craig Fisher told me a wonderful story, one that he thinks should be in Guinness World Records: how he started the 1968 12 Hours of Sebring in one car and finished it in a second, both owned by Roger Penske.

Technically, he finished both first and second in class (third and fourth in the race).

And how did that happen?

“It’s complicated,” said Fisher, “but I’ll keep it short.

“Roger is an astute man; he’s like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. If he figures he can win a race, he’ll pull a driver from anywhere to do it. Mark’s car (Mark Donohue) was doing better so he took me off the other car, where I’d started the race, and put me in with Mark to finish.”

When you look up the official classification of that ’68 race, there it is: Mark Donohue and Craig Fisher finished one spot ahead (third) of Craig Fisher, Joe Welch and Bob Johnson (fourth).

And he’s right: it should be in the Guiness records.

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