In the late 1980s
, Bernie Ecclestone, the little firebrand who was in the process of turning Formula One racing from a lucrative hobby into a multibillion-dollar business, had run out of patience with the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs (CASC), which sanctioned all motor racing in the land, professional as well as amateur.
In Ecclestone’s mind, the CASC — an arm of the international motoring authority FIA — had botched negotiations with the country’s top two brewers, Labatt and Molson, over rights to sponsor the F1 Grand Prix of Canada, which — among other things — had resulted in the cancellation of the race in 1987.
Ecclestone had the ear of Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the FIA at the time, mainly because of the clout he carried as president of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA). Without FOCA, there would be no Formula One.
He convinced Balestre (which wasn’t hard) that the amateur CASC had to go, to be replaced by a professional National Sporting Authority (ASN). Shortly after, the CASC was expelled from the FIA. Ecclestone then had Balestre put his pal, Benoit Mailloux, who was president of the FAQ (Federation de l’Automobile Quebec), in charge of all Canadian motorsport.
This did not go over well in many quarters, with critics suggesting the move was only good for the Grand Prix and not much else. In fact, rally drivers and teams were sufficiently concerned that they broke away to create the Canadian Association of Rallysport that would govern rallying.
In 1990, a company incorporated as ASN Canada FIA, took over from Mailloux, who was only too happy to hand over the keys to Roger Peart, president, and vice-president Paul B. Cooke. Peart and Cooke, through their ASN, then sanctioned road course and street racing for 30 years.
Late last year, they resigned from the FIA, a move that was unexpected. Yes, Peart was in his 80s and in ill health but Cooke, also in his 80s, had assumed the presidency and had not even hinted that he was going to throw in the towel. There was no succession plan either, so the resignation, which became official Dec. 31, left a void and a number of constituencies — 10, in total — rushed to fill it.
Several weeks ago, Jean Todt, president of the FIA, announced that Francois Dumontier, president and promoter of the Grand Prix du Canada and Ron Fellows, retired racer and co-owner of what is now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, operating as GDS (Groupe de Development Sportif), would head up the new ASN. This week, Fellows announced that the retired CEO of Canadian Tire, Stephen Wetmore, had agreed to be part of the executive team.
As was the case in the late 1980s and 1990, and which explains the previous eight paragraphs of background, this has not gone over well with many in the racing community, with some suggesting that, in the end, only the Grand Prix and perhaps CTMP will benefit.
As they say, its déjà vu all over again.
As was the case that led to the creation of CARS in 1990, the five racing regions in the country are currently split over these developments, with the presidents of two regions going so far as to write the FIA suggesting it not pay any attention to an application put forward by someone from a third region. Which is exactly the sort of behaviour that had Ecclestone rolling his eyes in the first place.
You’d think people would have learned.
The difficulty with volunteers, whether it’s a service club or a fundraising campaign or people administering motorsport in Canada, is that, often, competing agendas are at work and more than one person wants to be the boss. Professional organizations operate differently. You are on the team, or not. There are few grey areas.
At last count, there are nearly 250 ASNs in the world. Jean Todt, president of the FIA, has lots on the go at the moment, starting with the pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and including 70th anniversary celebrations of F1. I suggest he does not have a lot of time to worry about who is going to run racing in Canada and even after accepting recommendations from his vice-presidents and other advisers, he went with the guys he knew, which is pretty much how the real world works.
But in so doing, Todt went against the FIA’s Code of Conduct, which can be interpreted as saying that promoters can’t be part of ASNs. This is particularly bothersome to two of the people I talked to before sitting down to write this situational. They are Dr. Hugh Scully, chairman of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame and a pioneer in motorsports medicine, and Michael Kaerne, national steward for the Grand Prix and a past president of the Canadian Association of Car Clubs (CACC), which governs motorsports in British Columbia.
Said Kaerne: “If you look at the FIA statutes, the ethics and the Code of Conduct statues, under 2.2, it specifically says that promoters may not be part of an ASN. They’ve gone against their own statutes. That in itself should be a red flag.”
Scully was not as forthcoming in his criticism but agreed there was a problem.
But according to vice-president Fellows, that shouldn’t be a concern because the regions will continue to run amateur racing as they always have while the commercial side will concentrate on attracting money — “Right now, there is no money. None” — in order to create a structure to build a ladder system for young Canadian racers to advance in the sport beyond karting.
So far as money is concerned, the previous ASN had no such problems when it set up shop in 1990.
“It was the best of times for racing in this country,” Fellows said. “You had three major homegrown series sponsoring three different categories of racing and one of the sponsors of one of those series (Imperial Tobacco) was also building a driver development program. There was plenty of money flowing and it was a much easier time for revenue for the sanctioning body.
“The issue with the new sanctioning body is that we’re at a low point and our ability to attract some commercial interest is part of the plan. That’s the way we can grow this. Having the sporting authority supported by licensing and a couple of sanctioning deals is not financially viable. There aren’t enough people in this country with racing licences to support that.”
For his part, Dumontier said it became apparent a year or two ago that the previous ASN would not be able to carry on much longer and so he contacted Fellows.
“It was clear that we were the two biggest in the sport and it was natural for us to be involved,” he said. “At some point we decided to put in our own application. I met Jean (Todt) at our event in Montreal in June (the Grand Prix) and then again in January in Paris. The FIA World Motorsport Council met in April and our application for a new ASN was accepted.”
Dumontier said, like Fellows, that they plan to let the regions administer amateur motorsports in their jurisdictions while the new ASN will concentrate on the commercial side. This, in turn, will let them work with the regions, “to go back to the grassroots.”
“As you know,” he said, “since we lost Player’s (Imperial Tobacco), it was never replaced so we have to try to create a ladder series to bring the young kids to perform on the larger stage. We are lucky enough to have two Canadian drivers in the F1 championship (Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi) and we know why that is (family money), so we have to create something for the young people who don’t have that level of support. It’s part of the vision that Ron and I have to grow the sport.”
To that end, Dumontier said he, Fellows and others on the executive board want to promote more international events in the country.
“There is nothing specific at the moment, but in my discussions with Jean Todt, Canada is seen as a country with a great racing tradition. The Grand Prix has been here for more than 50 years and Jean would like to see more international events in the country. I’m on the same page. We are going to work with the FIA to see what we can bring and where.”
Dumontier said that right from the beginning, “we said in our application to start an ASN that the regions have to be involved and we wanted to work with the regions. They had an application of their own (to start an ASN) but they had disagreements, primarily from one guy, from the western side of the country.”
That, of course, would be Michael Kaerne, who freely admits to being “a s- disturber. I had to ask the hard questions (of the previous ASN) because somebody had to do that.”
Kaerne, a former driver, mechanic, president of CACC and national steward for the Grand Prix, acknowledges that he undoubtedly browned off some of his counterparts across the country when he unilaterally incorporated a not-for-profit federal corporation, Motorsport Canada ASN, in order to apply for a new Canadian ASN.
But he is well connected with senior FIA officials and suggests the process — despite that letter of objection sent to the FIA by the leaders of two of the five regions — eventually came down to three applications: his, one from the U.K. (Gary O’Hare, who operates a racing school in the U.K and Quebec) and the Dumontier-Fellows bid. The one from the U.K. was subsequently rejected and Kaerne says that the World Motorsport Council “wanted Francois and I to try to work together.”
“So I got hold of Francois and he said that he’d have to talk to Ron and that he’d get back to me but he never did. So I tailored my proposal to include Francois as representative of all the motorsport promoters in Canada and sent that in. It turned out that Francois’ proposal was the only one put up for a vote.”
Kaerne thinks he knows what happened.
“Francois had been agitating for a new ASN for at least two years,” he said. “At Montreal last year, he made a deal with Jean Todt, who’s a friend of his, and so things kind of went from there.”
But there is a bad taste in some mouths.
“I don’t think WCMA (Manitoba and the Prairies), CACC (British Columbia) and, the last time I talked to them, Ontario (CASC-OR) are planning to join Francois’ ASN. ASQ (Quebec) will, because there is a connection there; we don’t know about ARMS (Atlantic Region Motor Sports, which was asked to comment for this story but declined after initially saying it would).
In the end, Kaerne doesn’t think amateur racing needs the new ASN.
“The thing about the regions,” he said, “is that we only need the FIA for international licenses, or to put on listed events (international races) and because we’re not the promoters of listed events, it’s not a real requirement. We have the same insurance policy as we got through (the previous) ASN Canada and we’ve done that individually.
“We haven’t heard anything from Francois in regards to his plans. He’s said previously that he would have a representative of the regions on his board but nothing’s been brought forward. The regions could keep things going; whether it would be as healthy or healthier is another question,” adding that despite the difficulties, there are advantages to being affiliated with the governing ASN, such as a financial payment for including FIA rules in regional regulations.
So there you have it. There’s more — much more — but I’m sure you get the picture. Scully, the doctor who got into motorsport in the 1960s when he went to Mosport Park for a race and was appalled at the lack of medical facilities (“There were none”) and subsequently founded the Ontario Race Physicians organization that, to this day, staffs motorsport events, said in an interview that he stands ready to chair a meeting in an effort to solve the impasse.
“I’ve been around Canadian racing a long time,” said the chairman of the Hall of Fame, “and served on medical commissions at the international level, and I can converse in both official languages. I have the skills to bring people together to reach a consensus (he’s a former president of the Ontario and Canadian Medical Associations) and I’m ready to answer an invitation to do that if one should be forthcoming.”
My take: Despite the hurt feelings, and the evidence of politics at play (as in, the fix might have been in), Francois Dumontier and Ron Fellows are the people who should run motorsport in Canada. The world has changed (no, I’m not talking about the pandemic) and a professional ASN is preferable to one composed of amateurs.
In order for motorsport in Canada to grow, not just in Ontario and Quebec but everywhere, a ladder system of both open and closed-wheel racing must be established and for that to happen you need money. Dumontier and Fellows, with the help of new member Wetmore, have a better chance of getting into boardrooms to pitch for it than just about anybody else involved in Canadian racing, Once upon a time the tobacco companies poured millions into the sport but that’s gone and has never been replaced. If anybody can raise it, these men can.
The proof will be in the pudding, of course. Everybody will be watching.