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Racing sponsor O’Donnell just like a father figure

Published April 16, 2010


James F. (Jim) O’Donnell is one of the most successful people you will ever meet.

He’s been a whiz at business forever, made his mark as a volunteer (he was co-chairman of the Special Olympics), has a wonderful family and tons of friends who all love and respect him.

So when he’s asked to look back on his life, at all this greatness and goodness, and to pick out his fondest memory, he tells you about a day when he was a loser.

It happened to be the Indianapolis 500 that he lost, mind you, but it was a loss all the same and it was heartbreaking. Of all the successes he could have selected, he chose as his highlight the time he didn’t win and that’s as much a measure of the man as anything else you could pinpoint.

Now, he lights right up and just relishes talking about that afternoon in May 24, 1992 when his driver, Toronto’s Scott Goodyear, lost the biggest auto race in the world to Al Unser Jr. by 0.043 of a second, which is still the closest finish in Indy history.

So much of what Jim O’Donnell is all about was wrapped up in that moment.

I’m writing about him today in the context of Saturday night's 16th Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame gala induction dinner at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. O’Donnell is one of more than a dozen individuals and organizations who are being welcomed into the Hall of Fame this year, including road racer Bill Adam, oval-track veteran Norm Mackereth and the Canadian Race Communications Association.

O’Donnell is being honoured because, frankly, if it hadn’t been for him, two of Canada’s finest and best-known racing drivers, Goodyear and Mississauga’s Ron Fellows, wouldn’t have had careers.

Yes, there is no doubt they had the talent but without his guidance, vision, commitment and, yes, money (he was president of Mackenzie Financial Corp.), they wouldn’t have had the pleasure and rewards of the glorious careers they’ve both enjoyed.

O’Donnell became convinced early in his career that advertising and promotion of financial products would prove beneficial.

Sure, he had a soft spot for auto racing – he’s a big fan, in fact – but figured that with the right driver and team and the proper stage, he could generate the exposure required to move his core business, Mackenzie, to the forefront of the financial services industry.

“In terms of investment, Mackenzie got a lot out of that program,” he said. “Prior to getting involved in racing sponsorship (in the late 1980s), our assets under administration were a billion, four hundred million dollars. A few years later, just before I left Mackenzie (he sold his share of the business in 1993), we were approaching $30 billion.

“The year we came second at Indy, we got tremendous exposure. USA Today did a four-page insert. The Mackenzie name was everywhere in the United States and we built a business down there in a highly competitive market by exposing dealers and others to the Mackenzie name.

“Sales turned upwards, on a dime. I likened it to a football team. If you could take all the people who distributed your product to a football game and put them on a bench so they were part of a team, you could really have something.

“In racing, you can take people to the track, run a breakfast, put up a tent and take pictures with the race team, with the drivers. They find themselves part of a wonderful thing going on and it brings tremendous benefits.

“That particular year at Indy, we had 400 people as guests – brokers and agents. They had a wonderful time and you could see the results that followed.”

O’Donnell initially started dabbling in auto racing sponsorship with Ludwig Heimrath Jr. in the CART Indy-car series and Rolf von Engelbrechten in the sedans-only Player’s-GM Challenge Series. He wasn’t getting the success he expected. “They were good guys and good drivers but they weren’t winning and I wanted to win.”

On a trip to Le Mans in 1989, O’Donnell – who was there as a guest of Porsche Canada – bumped into Goodyear, who was there because of his success in the Rothmans-Porsche Turbo Cup Series.

Said Goodyear: “My wife Leslie and I went into the dining room for breakfast. We were sitting at a big table with all the Porsche dealers and I looked down and saw Jim. Now, I had a rule: although I was trying to find money to go racing, I would never call a company that already had a driver and I knew Jim was involved with Ludwig.

“But we got talking and he said he was thinking of adding a second car for the Toronto race that year and would I be interested? I indicated I was and, sure enough, 10 days later his secretary called and we had lunch and I agreed to race in Toronto. Then I replaced Ludwig in CART full-time in 1990.”

O’Donnell talks about Goodyear with the pride of a father. He also explains that while he was looking for a winner, he was also looking for more than a driver.

“ I wanted to prove to people that a Canadian could go into a world arena and be successful in every way and Scott was the guy I used,” he said. “I felt great about it. A few years later, Paul Tracy got involved but I liked Scott.

“When I hired him, I said to him that I was hiring a driver but I also want a guy who can speak, I want a guy who can present himself to the public, and I want a guy who can behave. I don’t want you borrowing money, I said. You drive. I don’t want you driving at 200 miles an hour and worrying about whether you can make the payment on some stupid bloody thing that you bought. You save your money. I’ll take care of you, I‘ll manage you and I’ll do everything I can to give you a successful life and career. All you have to do is honour what I ask you to do.

“He was great with the public, great with the dealers, a tremendous speaker – he did a great job."

Goodyear describes his relationship with O’Donnell as a mentoring process with racing at the root. “He’s a quiet and powerful individual,” Goodyear said. “You learn so much about business and life from him."

As well as mentoring, O’Donnell was also a matchmaker – at least in the case of Fellows, who told me once about how he came to meet his wife, Linda.

“She worked for Mackenzie and was invited to attend a special end-of-year party as a reward,” Fellows said. “I was there as one of Mackenzie’s racing drivers (O’Donnell’s Player’s-GM support enabled Fellows to move into the Trans-Am Series and eventually endurance events as lead driver with Corvette Racing) and I saw her and asked somebody to introduce us. I don’t know about her, but I was crazy about her right from the start.”

O’Donnell chuckled when I reminded him of this during our interview.

“Linda worked for me and she’s a wonderful girl. You know, at Christmas parties, I’d see them talking and I’d think, ‘Well, there’s something going on.’

“So Ronnie came up to me once, I had a home in Florida then and I was going down and he asked if I minded if he tagged along. I said no, not at all. So we hung out for a week.

“He knew I had a policy of non-fraternization because we’d had some problems in that area – we had some pretty tight rules – and he hemmed and hawed and finally I said out with it and he said, ‘I’m in love with …’ and I said Linda and he said, ‘How did you know?’ and I said I’m not blind and he asked permission to continue seeing her and that was that. Then they got married and they’ve lived happily ever after.”

Fellows chuckled when reminded of that scenario, but added that "we might have had a few cocktails."

During a brief chat we had by phone from California, where he's doing ambassadorial work for Corvette at this weekend's Grand Prix of Long Beach, Fellows said he owed much to O'Donnell.

"I shudder to think what the struggle (to build a racing career) might have been like without him," he said.

"He likes to see people achieve; he'll go out of his way to help you show what you can do, be it in racing or business."

During our formal interview (at which he supplied the coffee and rolled up the rim, because “you never know”), O’Donnell and I talked about his family and his charity work (programs for handicapped people such as blind skiers), his business successes (he’s still in investments) and his friendships with people inside racing and out. But we always kept drifting back to May 24, 1992.

“Sure, Scott got beaten by Unser but there was a reason,” he said. “Another five feet and he’d have had him. He had him to begin with but he was blocked by a certain driver who got on his line. He (Goodyear) got off it and it takes a lap or two to get back up to speed and that was where he lost.

“But the excitement! That moment was amazing. I was working in the pit – I had a job – and our pit was right there at the finish line. Twenty laps from the end, Scott came in and got serviced and I said on the radio, ‘Go for it, baby.’ He was flat out through the turns, he was passing down in the grass, he was doing everything. He was actually ahead. He was ahead right up to that miscue where he got blocked. I talked to Unser afterward and he said his tires were shot, there was no way he was going to be able to hold him off.

“When they flashed across the finish line, I turned around and everybody in the grandstands was on their feet, there was incredible emotion. I’m getting emotional just talking about it. He didn’t go into the pits because he didn’t know if he’d won or lost.

“He stopped on the track and I jumped over the wall and I went out to him and I stood over the car – I straddled it – and I said to him: ‘You have no idea what you’ve accomplished today’ and he stood up and he was crying and I was crying and the people were just screaming their heads off. It took us days to get over it. It was something that just can’t be duplicated. It was a tremendous thrill.”

Goodyear might have lost that particular 500-mile race but he won the 500-miler at Michigan soon afterward and he won it not just once, but twice.

“My favourite memory,” Goodyear said, “was seeing the smile on his face when I won the Michigan 500 for the first time. The most satisfaction I got in my racing career was giving him the first Marlboro 500 trophy I won and he has that in his home today. Seeing the satisfaction on his face was a great reward for me.”

In addition to O’Donnell, Adam, Mackereth and the Race Communications group, the Hall of Fame will also induct:

-Carl Bastido, who for more than 50 years has contributed to the Canadian motorcycle scene in competition, education, trade shows and journalism.

-Alan Bunting, posthumously, who was a driving force behind the establishment of Mosport International Raceway and who is credited with designing the circuit.

-Doug Fairchild, posthumously, was one of the most influential behind-the-scenes personalities in Canadian auto racing who established Competition Tire Canada.

-Bill LeFeuvre, one of Canada’s most prolific off-road racers.

-Wayne Kelly, posthumously, who was a fine racer but is best remembered for modifying existing Formula Vees and Porsche sports cars so they became better known as Kelly Vees and Kelly Porsches.

-Michel Mercier, a champion motorcycle racer in all disciplines (dirt, flat-track, road and off-road) who also taught many of Canada’s best racers.

-F.J. (Fred) Smith, one of the top drag racers in Canada and the United States who also built some of the most competitive Stock and Super Stock class cars.

-Bruce Vessair and Gary Vessair, who are two of Canada’s most successful snowmobile racers.

-Carroll Shelby, the American road racer and pioneer designer who is the first inductee in the Hall of Fame’s new International category.

Norris McDonald writes an auto racing blog at

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