Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background
Tonight at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association will honour five of Canada’s most successful and famous racing drivers and the memory of a sixth with a charity gala in celebration of the 40th anniversary next February of Canada’s biggest and most important auto exhibition, the Canadian International AutoShow.
The careers of sports car champion and NASCAR star Ron Fellows, IndyCar legends Paul Tracy, Alex Tagliani and Scott Goodyear, standout Canadian racer and driver coach Richard Spenard and the late Formula One star Gilles Villeneuve will be celebrated. Villeneuve’s wife Joann Villeneuve will be in attendance.
These ambassadors of Canadian motorsport and the Canadian automobile industry are among the greatest racing talents in the world.
And whether it was in their youth or during their remarkable careers, most have a connection to the Toronto show.
One of the most successful Canadian drivers in auto-racing history and co-owner of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport), Fellows made his professional debut in the 1986 Player’s GM Challenge Series and, three years later, won the championship at Mosport. He also won his first SCCA Trans-Am Series race on the same weekend.
His career took off in Trans-Am, with 19 wins in 95 starts, and continued through the American Le Mans Series to the NASCAR circuit, where he’s still active. In 2007, General Motors introduced a Ron Fellows limited edition of the Corvette Z06 to honour his success with the Corvette Racing Team program.
He has many fond memories of the Toronto auto show, and shared a couple:
“As kids, we used to go every year and we’d sit in as many cars as we could, dreaming about owning a very cool car one day,” he says. “To this day, when I go with our family, the new-car smells are the same and I still get goose bumps because it brings back all those memories.
“Right after we won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2001, our Corvette C5 race car was shipped up to the Toronto show. There it was on display, exactly the same as when we had finished in Victory Lane — dirty from the road and rain and the nose completely pitted from 24-hour racing. It was awesome seeing it like that.”
A CART and Indy Racing League driver, now retired, Goodyear won the Michigan 500 in 1992 and 1994 and qualified for 11 Indianapolis 500 races between 1990 and 2001. He finished just 0.043 seconds behind winner Al Unser Jr. in the 1992 Indy 500.
After more than two decades of competing in sedans, Indy cars and endurance races, Goodyear retired from racing following a crash in the 2001 Indy 500. He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2002 and became a race commentator for ABC and ESPN.
He also has many fond memories of going the auto show in Toronto as a youngster and dreaming about hot cars and life in the fast lane.
“I always looked forward to the auto show as it was a time where you got to see all the new cars, especially the European models,” said Goodyear.
“My family always had Ford trucks for the family business, so I always looked forward to being able to sit in the sporty cars. I dreamed of one day being able to have sports cars and I have had a couple of fun ones, including a Porsche 911 and a BMW Z8.”
A versatile international competitor for more than 25 years, Spenard scored the most wins in Canadian road-racing history. He racked up his first championship title in 1974 with eight victories in 10 races, and won the 1977 Quebec Ice Series championship.
In 1986, he had 12 wins in 24 starts in three different series: four in the Players series, six in Formula 2000 and two in the Rothmans Porsche Turbo Cup Series. He won the Motorola Cup at the 1998 Molson Indy by driving to victory from the back of the pack.
He instructed young Canadian racing champions Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, David Empringham, Ron Fellows, Trevor Siebert and the late Greg Moore.
In the 1980s, he promoted the Spenard-David Racing School at the Toronto auto show and it was there where he met a student who would become a fellow instructor, a racing partner and a friend.
“When Ron Fellows came to our booth in 1985, it was memorable because I was unaware then that, after our little meeting, we would become teammates for a couple of seasons in the Players-GM motorsports series, and Ronnie would go on to become such a well-known international driver.
“I met a lot of different people at the auto show, but I’d have to say meeting Ronnie was unforgettable because we became good friends. He joined the school and I watched him launch his great career.”
During a family trip to Italy, 10-year-old Montreal-born Alex Tagliani caught racing fever when his grandfather first introduced him to go-karting.
The Canadian IndyCar star began his professional career in the Champ Car series in 2000, when it was still known as CART, and he has gone on to race all over North America. His most memorable Toronto auto show experience was the time he attended the event as a spectator.
“It was around 2002, when I was in Toronto on other business, and I decided to go to the show with some friends. I’m walking along the aisle and, all of a sudden, bang! I see my car on display with a crowd of people around it taking pictures.
“I stayed in the background and pulled my baseball cap over my eyes because I did not want to attract attention, but I was very curious. Was that my race car, a backup, or a show car? I made many appearances before but I didn’t know about this exhibit.
“It was a Player’s Team Reynard exactly like the one I raced but I couldn’t tell for sure. So, it was pretty funny that I wanted to find out, but I was one of the farthest people from the car.”
He managed to go unnoticed and Tagliani later learned it was not his actual set of racing wheels on display, but one of the many show cars the Player’s team exhibited at promotional events around the world.
Having a dad who was an auto-sport enthusiast, Tracy was introduced to cars at an early age and, like many racers, found the need for speed by go-karting as a kid. In 1985, at the age of 16, he became the youngest-ever Canadian Formula Ford champion.
The following year, he broke the record as the youngest Can-Am Series race winner and he grew up to become one of the most colourful, and sometimes controversial, racers of his generation — and Canada’s all-time winningest IndyCar driver.
Tracy remembers that his public debut at the Toronto auto show was a less-than glorious experience.
“I’d just been signed to the Penske Racing Team, way back in 1992, and I had to go to the Toronto auto show for an autograph-signing session at the Chevy booth. I’d just started to make it in racing and I thought it was the coolest thing to be signing autographs.
“Right across from me was (NASCAR star) Richard Petty signing autographs at the Dodge booth and his lineup stretched right around the block, while I had two people. So that was pretty humbling.
“Hopefully, there will be a bigger line on this go-round.”
Gilles Villeneuve: 1950-1982
Called the “patron saint of Canada motorsport,” by U.S. F1 commentator Bob Varsha, Villeneuve was a champion snowmobile racer before finding success in cars. He won Formula Ford races in Canada and went on to win the 1976 North American Formula Atlantic championship.
At the Trois-Rivieres Grand Prix in 1976, Villeneuve won the F-Atlantic race and defeated, among others, visiting McLaren driver James Hunt, who would win the world driving championship later that season. Hunt returned to Europe raving about Villeneuve’s abilities and the young Canadian was offered a chance to drive for the McLaren team at the 1977 British Grand Prix, qualifying seventh.
Later that season, he signed a contract to race full-time for the legendary Scuderia Ferrari and made his debut in the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport.
A year later, after the Canadian race was moved to Montreal, Villeneuve won his first Grand Prix and it came on home soil. Before his death as the result of an accident in qualifying at the May 1982 Belgian GP, he won five more F1 races and scored a dozen more podiums.
In the words of his Ferrari teammate, Jody Schechter, at his funeral in his hometown of Berthierville, Que., Villeneuve was “the fastest racing driver who ever lived.”
In 1997, his son Jacques won the world championship.