Another hurdle has been cleared by the developers of the proposed Canadian Motor Speedway in Fort Erie.
On Monday, the Ontario Municipal Board rejected all appeals against the planned speedway, which will include a one-mile paved oval track with seating for 65,000 spectators plus a road course.
Good luck to them. There are still some hoops to jump through – completion of environmental reports, that sort of thing – but the green light seems to be getting closer.
I first wrote about this project in 2009 and interviewed Jay Mason, a Niagara Falls entrepreneur who was involved at the time who suggested that if everything went the way everybody hoped it would, there could be racing at the track as early as 2011.
Well, it shows how the wheels can grind slowly when it comes to projects of this size.
There remains some cynicism about the viability of the track. What might have made sense in 2009 might not make as much today.
For instance, one-day pleasure trips by Americans to Canada are down 70 per cent because of the passport requirement, which has hit the casino businesses in Windsor and Niagara Falls particularly hard.
Americans will buy passports if they want to go to Europe. Whether an American family of four will spend more than $300 on passports in order to attend a car race in the Niagara region of Canada is suddenly a big question.
All of the stories about this place, of course, mention NASCAR. The developers are careful not to, but it’s no secret that if you’re going to build a big oval speedway that NASCAR has to figure into your plans somewhere along the line.
But anybody who knows anything about auto racing knows that you do not snap your fingers and expect an answer from NASCAR. It is not a case of “if you build it, they will come,” when NASCAR is involved.
And, in fact, NASCAR has made it clear previously it is not all that interested in the Fort Erie track, suggesting that races at Watkins Glen and Michigan International Speedway are of higher priority.
Of course, the International Speedway Corp., which owns NASCAR, also owns Watkins Glen and Michigan, thus explaining its reluctance to go into business against itself.
Plus, NASCAR is likely in the days ahead to announce a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race for Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for 2013 and to suggest that perhaps a Nationwide Series stock car race will be possible for 2014.
If that happens, the new Fort Erie speedway would have trouble attracting any of NASCAR’s major series.
The promoters of the IZOD IndyCar Series race in downtown Toronto recently re-upped for three more years, so the earliest an Indy car race could be contracted for the Fort Erie track would be 2016. Even then it would be unlikely because the Toronto race attracts government money and a race at a privately owned circuit probably would not.
Return on investment, then, becomes a problem without major races at the facility. Whether motorcycle races or sports car racing would attract big enough crowds to turn a profit and pay off investors is of concern.
At the end of the day, though, Canada needs a big oval speedway. Despite the obstacles, here’s hoping it gets built.
Talking about Canadian Tire Motorsport Park – or Old Mosport, as I call it on occasion – the Castrol control/scoring tower – which started life in 1962 as the Esso tower at Mosport Park – was demolished Monday after 50 years of service.
The tower was removed in order to lengthen the pit lane for an anticipated NASCAR race in 2013. It was about to become redundant in any event because a new corporate and media centre, plus offices, is under construction across the track on driver’s left at turn ten.
Other than the name change, the Castrol tower stayed just about the same for all of those 50 years. On the ground floor, there was a medical room where members of the Ontario Race Physicians organization could do their work; a large area where press conferences were held; a small reception area where competition reports and statistics were prepared – and where lunch was served – and a unisex washroom. Upstairs were executive offices, a working press room where the track announcers occupied a corner, and men’s and women’s washrooms.
At one time or another, each and every one of the greats, and not-so-greats, in the world of motorsport passed through that building. Now, only the ghosts remain.
I could write a book about that place – but here are just a couple of quick reminiscences off the top of my head.
In 1977, A.J. Foyt came up from Indianapolis to promote an Indy car race at Mosport – the Molson Diamond Indy – and went on and on about how wonderful the track was. There was a big, somewhat gruff, reporter there from a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio, who was taking delight in egging Foyt on.
“Tex,” he’d say, “just exactly what is it about this place that makes you so keen to race here?”
And Foyt would give the guy a steely eye and then say something like, “I like racin’ on real road courses and there ain’t nowhere better’n this place.”
And the reporter would follow up. “Tex,” he’d say, “you seem to like just about everything at this place. Is there anything you don’t like?”
And Foyt would grit his teeth and give the guy an even steelier eye and say, “Nope, I can’t say there’s anything wrong with this place at all.”
And then the reporter dropped the clunker: “Tex,’ he said, “how much are they payin’ you to say all this?”
And Foyt snapped at the guy: “None of your business. And if you ask me another stupid question like that, we’re goin’ outside.”
Later that same year, Ian Ashley lost control of his Hesketh at the end of the Andretti straight and wrapped himself and the car around a television tower.
About an hour later, I was in the late Harvey Hudes’s office (he owned the circuit, in partnership with Bernie Kamin) when three very upset people – two women and a man, all in their 20s or early 30s – walked in and asked to use the phone.
The man placed an overseas call to England and got Ashley’s mother on the line.
“It’s Tony,” he said (I think this was Anthony Horsley, known as Bubbles, who was a great friend of Lord Hesketh) and I’ve got bad news. Ian’s had an accident. They’ve flown him to hospital.”
Of course, Ashley recovered and, in fact, raced in the first Molson Indy Toronto at the CNE in 1986. But I was struck by Horsley’s calmness once he got on the phone – he’d been as upset as the two women when he first walked into Hudes’s office – and by the reaction of Ashley’s mother when she was told about the accident.
I was close enough to the phone to hear her reaction. “Oh, dear,” she said.
So very British.
I could go on. But it’s gone.
And great things are right ahead for Old Mosport, I think.
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