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The Canadian Grand Prix has its own, Unique Story

How Labatt wanted to move the Canadian Grand Prix to Toronto and how Toronto blew it — not once, but twice.

  • Canadian Grand Prix

Over the years, I have written I-don’t-know-how-many-stories and columns about the Grand Prix du Canada. This weekend is the 50th anniversary of Formula One racing in Canada. I was at the first one in 1967, and I’m in Montreal now for the one Sunday. That’s a lot of races and a lot of words.

Since 1978, the Grand Prix has been held in Montreal on Ile Notre-Dame, site of Expo 67. The first one, in 1967, was held at Mosport Park (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), north of Bowmanville. It was held there again in 1969 and was also held twice, in 1968 and 1970, at Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant in the Quebec Laurentians. From 1971 until ’77 (except for 1975, when there wasn’t one, period), Mosport was the “permanent” home of the Grand Prix.

(OK, that takes care of today’s history lesson. I promise this column will get more interesting, starting now.)

I always thought everybody — and I mean everybody — knew that the reason the race went east to Montreal in late 1977 was because Toronto’s city council of the day turned down an application to move it from Mosport to Exhibition Place. In fact, although they haven’t done it for a few years, the organizers of the race in Montreal would rub this in. The souvenir Grand Prix program would often include a short, three-line “filler” item near the back of the book that said:

Grand Prix History

Rejected by Toronto, Oct. 11, 1977

Accepted by Montreal, Oct. 12, 1977

Be that as it may, it seems that not everybody is aware of what actually happened, and any number of stories and theories have been floating around ever since.

One, for instance, describes an incident in 1977, when driver Ian Ashley was terribly bashed up at Mosport when his car flew off the track at the end of the back straightaway and wrapped itself around a TV tower. It took some time to rescue him. Driver Hans-Joachim Stuck, who was very upset, went to the pits to find defending world champion James Hunt, demanding that something be done. Hunt then, allegedly, went to find Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone, who was running the Formula One Constructors’ Association at the time, to complain about safety standards at the track. Ecclestone reportedly then told the FIA that the teams wouldn’t ever again race at Mosport.

There’s a kernel of truth there, but it’s not quite correct. Far from it, in fact.

Then, earlier this year, during a celebration of 50 years of F1 in Canada that was held at the Canadian International AutoShow, one of the participants in a panel discussion said the real reason the race went to Montreal instead of Toronto was that Labatt, the sponsor who held the rights to F1 racing in Canada at the time, had spent so much money bringing baseball’s Blue Jays to Toronto that it didn’t want to alienate its French-Canadian customers and so moved the race to the Quebec metropolis to make things even.

Celebrating 50 Years of Grand Prix Racing in Canada

Uh-uh. Plain wrong.

You’ll notice that both those “stories” were about spur-of-the-moment decisions made in 1977. In fact, Labatt had known since 1975 that Mosport had its limitations. There weren’t enough roads leading into, and out of, the facility, and for that reason, attendance was pretty much constrained. A sponsor wants growth in just about everything it’s involved in, and the writing was on the wall so far as Mosport being a future venue was concerned.

And since F1 organizers were demanding that race tracks all around the world upgrade their facilities with a focus on hospitality first, and then safety, Labatt knew that a lot of money would eventually be needed to upgrade Mosport in order to keep the race there.

So, in 1976, Labatt GM Sid Oland asked Mike Hurst, director of marketing for Ontario, to undertake an examination of the company’s F1 sponsorship and to make recommendations that would be taken to Labatt president, Don McDougall.

I called Hurst the other day for a chat, and he told me that the company had three options: it could forget about sponsoring F1 (and let Molson take over); it could buy Mosport, or else partner with the people who ran the place at the time to fund major improvements in order to keep the race there; or, it could move the race to another location.

The third option made the most sense.

“From a beer business point of view,” Hurst said, “the best option for a move was downtown Toronto. From an international F1 perspective, Montreal was also up there, and longtime Labatt Quebec GM Maurice Legault had been talking to Mayor Jean Drapeau about the idea.”

The reason Labatt chose Toronto initially was twofold: it sold more beer in Ontario (Molson had an edge in Quebec), and, unlike Montreal, groundwork for a downtown racetrack had already been completed.

The Labatt Streamliner proved to a piece of rolling Canadiana

Back in 1968, nearly 10 years earlier, Johnny F. Bassett (son of John Bassett, who owned the Toronto Telegram, among other business concerns) and George Eaton, of the Eaton’s department store family, who was a pretty good race-car driver in his own right, had proposed moving the Indy car race as well as the Grand Prix from Mosport to Exhibition Place, where the Honda Indy Toronto is now held. They planned to have the pit straight run right through the middle of the old Exhibition Stadium, which could hold upwards of 40,000 people. And they wanted permission to close Lake Shore Blvd. to traffic two weekends every summer.

The two men who ran Mosport in ’68, accountant Harvey Hudes and lawyer Bernie Kamin, realized that if they let all that happen, they would soon be out of business. They needed the revenue from those two events to keep their racetrack going. So they approached the ratepayers’ association representing the citizens of the nearby Parkdale neighbourhood and scared the living daylights out of them with stories about deafness from noise, and terror brought on by Hells Angels who would burn down their houses and kidnap their daughters.

Although Toronto would have been unique in the world — only Monaco conducted an F1 race through its streets in 1968, and Toronto would have had two major events — the Parkdale ratepayers’ group raised such a stink that city council wanted nothing to do with any car race.

It was a brilliant move on the part of Hudes and Kamin, but it was something that would ultimately come back to haunt them. Why? Because when Labatt tried to take the Grand Prix to Exhibition Place in time for the 1978 race nearly 10 years later, those two were very much involved. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

When Hurst launched his study into the value of F1, steps in the review included:

∙ Attending the 1976 Long Beach Grand Prix and the Italian Grand Prix, where he could talk to promoters, sponsors and other people involved in F1.

∙ Holding meetings with Ecclestone, who had just taken over leadership of the Constructors’ Association. Said Hurst: “I talked to him at that time about what a great location downtown Toronto would be and what a great race it would be, and he looked at me and explained that none of it mattered if it didn’t make money. For him, it was all about the money. He wanted the TV rights, to run the ritzy Paddock Club, and so on. He outlined his vision for taking control and centralizing all the rights and revenue streams — a vision he then delivered on.”

Ecclestone told Hurst — and this was in ’76 — that he was behind moving the race because Mosport didn’t fit his vision. He liked the Long Beach street race, so Toronto could work — if the money was there.

∙ Fan surveys were conducted, and there was a lot of discussion in the city, particularly in and around Parkdale.

“I presented the view,” said Hurst, “that if Labatt’s had ambitions to extend outside Canada and become a global brewer at some point, then F1 offered a great entry point into international markets, especially Europe and Asia.

“And moving the event was the preferred option to build the value of the Canadian race. Further, I suggested we should try to do that with Bernie and Harvey alongside and in a continuing management role (versus going against them to take the rights), and we put a tentative deal together with them to go that route.”

Once given the go-ahead to move the race to Toronto, the work for Hurst was just beginning. In no particular order, he and his team:

∙ Conducted noise studies to prepare for expected opposition, particularly from the Parkdale residents;

∙ Prepared economic benefits studies, to build support from the business and tourism communities;

∙ Lobbied members of council, whose approval was required. Said Hurst: “We knew that this would be a challenge because city council at the time was very antidevelopment.”

Hurst arranged a trip to Monaco for senior Labatt and city personnel — the city manager at the time and several behind-the-scenes managers known to have influence with certain council members were invited — to see a race close up.

F1 at Ontario Place? Why not?

“There were no hotel rooms, so I arranged for a boat in the harbour to accommodate us — which turned out, once we got there, to be a ship with many state rooms. And Jody Scheckter won the Grand Prix of Monaco for Canadian Walter Wolf’s team.”

As the time for the council vote drew near, Hurst and his team arranged a big media event on the CNE grounds to present the full case to the public and the politicians. Dick Bradbeer, who held various media relations and public relations posts with Labatt for years, got his friend Jackie Stewart to fly in for the day to help make the case.

From all accounts, Stewart — and Bradbeer — did bang-up jobs.

And then came the vote. It was close, but Toronto council turned down the request to move the Canadian Grand Prix from Mosport to the streets of Exhibition Place by a margin of two votes, in large part because of fierce opposition once again from the Parkdale Ratepayers Association, which couldn’t quite figure out how Harvey Hudes and Bernie Kamin could have been so fiercely against a downtown street race nine years earlier but were so gung-ho about one now.

“We knew it would be a challenge going in,” Hurst said. “It was a very antidevelopment council at the time — they didn’t want to do anything. It was an uphill battle, but we really thought we’d made it — but it turned out that we didn’t.

“We were in a downtown Toronto hotel room waiting for the results of the vote. We’d found out we’d lost and were having a few drinks to drown our disappointment when the phone rang, and I can’t remember, but it was either Maurice (Legault) or (Jean) Drapeau himself on the line.

“Yes, it happened that fast. Maurice had been quietly lobbying Drapeau, and when the opportunity came, they didn’t waste a second. They reached out and grabbed it. If you wanted to look at it from a Formula One point of view, and a successful Grand Prix forever, you’d want it in Montreal. But we were looking at it from a beer point of view, and we’d have preferred to have it in Ontario.

“When it was at Mosport, it was pretty much an Ontario division sponsorship opposed to a national sponsorship, so when we were going to move it, we wanted to keep it in Ontario, if we could. It was an interesting time.”

Montreal embraced the Grand Prix with the same enthusiasm it had for Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics. It remains, to this day, year-after-year, the biggest tourist weekend in Montreal every summer, beating the jazz and comedy festivals, hands down. That Toronto, not once, but twice, turned down the opportunity to host this huge international event where, in the words of Sir Jackie Stewart, “the eyes of the world would be on Canada and the host city,” continues to be a puzzle.

There is a postscript to this story, of course. The race was moved to Montreal in time for the 1978 renewal and it was won by a native son, Gilles Villeneuve. Now, Jackie Stewart and Bernie Ecclestone had a little side deal cooked up at the time with the Moet Champagne company that, in return for healthy sponsorship dollars, Moet Champagne and only Moet Champagne would be sprayed from the podium by the race winner and the two runners-up.

In a move that resonates in marketing circles to this day for its sheer brilliance, Betty Verkuil, promotions manager for Labatt at the time, had three giant bottles of Labatt 50 created and she had them delivered to an area behind the podium. At the very last second, she took away the bottles of Champagne and slipped the big bottles of beer into their places.

Gilles Villeneuve was seen in pictures at the time — they can be called up on the Internet to this very day — spraying beer over an adoring crowd instead of the traditional bubbly.

Bernie Ecclestone and Sir Jackie Stewart were not amused.

It never happened before and it’s never happened again. But in October, 1978, it happened right here in Canada. In this, our Sesquicentennial year, who says this ain’t a great place?

Canadian Grand Prix

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