Don’t tell anybody, but Canadians are stealthily taking over NASCAR, the giant U. S-based stock car and pickup truck organization that many people consider second in the racing world only to Formula One.
Think about that for a moment. NASCAR being run by Canadians? Not quite — but give us time.
In the beginning, NASCAR was founded by Big Bill France
in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1948. The first star drivers all came from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Think of the Alabama Gang — the Allison brothers, Neil Bonnett
, and all those guys racing out of a place called Hueytown — and Awesome Bill from Dawsonville (Bill Elliott
from Dawsonville, Ga.) and the Waltrips of Kentucky and the Earnhardts of North Carolina and drivers with names like Coo Coo Marlin (Sterling’s daddy) and Friday Hassler, and what do you get?
It’s sure not the NHL.
Once upon a time, if you wanted to race-drive or own a team in that league, you had to speak with a drawl so thick it took a Bowie knife to cut through it. And you had to talk about huntin’ ‘n’ fishin’, moonshine, possums ‘n’ catfish ‘n’ eatin’ Hush Puppies.
But that’s changing. Boy, is it ever.
The president of NASCAR is now a Canadian from Vancouver, Brent Dewar
. Only the fourth president in the organization’s history, he was a top executive with General Motors before going to NASCAR. He took over from Mike Helton.
And then you have Brad Moran
of Barrie, who is managing director of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, one of the top three national touring series, the others being the Xfinity Series for stock cars and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which is the top of the mountain.
Those guys are bureaucrats — or executives, as I’m sure they would prefer to be called. Down in the trenches, by which I mean the racing, where famous names like Jimmie Johnson and the Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, get it on most weekends starting in February and finishing in November, you have two top personalities — Martin Truex Jr.
, who won the 2017 Monster Energy championship, and his crew chief, Cole Pearn
, who is yet another Canadian, from London, Ont.
And what is it about Canadians and NASCAR? Work ethic. Canadian work ethic, said Pearn in an interview a week ago Friday at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto where he and Truex had come to help raise money to pay for the education of two young boys who lost their father to illness last summer. That father, Jacob Damen
, and Pearn were best friends, and that explained the heavy NASCAR presence at the hockey shrine on a Friday night in January.
I mean, they even brought the Monster Energy Cup with them, which is quite something. When the Canadian International AutoShow (Feb. 16-25 this year) celebrated 100 years of the Indianapolis 500
in 2016, they tried to get the Borg-Warner Trophy for the display but were turned down. So, kudos to NASCAR for sending their Cup up.
Truex, the driver, really needs no introduction. But who is this 35-year-old guy, Pearn?
He raced go-karts as a kid, winning three Canadian national championships before going stock car racing. He graduated from Waterloo with a degree in mechanical engineering and tried to become a professional racing driver by competing for three seasons in the Canadian CASCAR Super Series (which later became the NASCAR Pinty’s Series) but soon realized that his talents were better suited outside the cockpit. After working for Toyota as an engineer, he moved to North Carolina and first got a job with Richard Childress Racing. He then moved to Furniture Row Racing and was promoted to crew chief of the No. 78 car — essentially, general manager of the race team but quarterback on race weekends — in late 2014. He is the first Canadian crew chief of a Cup team and, subsequently, the first Canadian crew chief to win a major NASCAR championship.
Unlike the Indy car drivers and occasionally someone from F1, it’s not often that two of the top racing personalities in NASCAR come to Toronto — I think Jimmie Johnson
might have been the last one and that was years ago — and so Tim Hauraney
and Joel Robinson
were there to cover proceedings for TSN, Erik Tomas
of the Raceline Radio Network had his recorder handy and I was there with my notebook and pencil. (Not really, but you know what I mean.)
As drivers like Truex and crew chiefs like Pearn are often pulled every which way at events like these — for example, they have to meet and spend time with VIPs like Tony Spiteri
, senior vice president of marketing, research & development for Pinty’s Delicious Foods, which sponsors NASCAR racing in Canada — Tomas and I frequently tag-team our interviews. This time was no exception: we went after the athletes from both sides.
Rather than interpreting their remarks, here is how they answered some of our questions. I have edited their words for length but the essence of what they said is printed here:
How does it feel to win a championship?
It’s been kind of a whirlwind. You work your whole life for something like this and then to actually achieve it, you’re not sure what to do with it. But it’s been a lot of fun.
The response from Canada has been amazing. The sport has a huge following here, really loyal fans that you would classify as diehard race fans. To represent our country in the sport is way beyond anything I could have dreamed of.
You’re here because of Jacob Damen, who died suddenly of a really aggressive bacterial infection. He was your best friend. Tell us about him.
We didn’t go to the same elementary school but we played each other in sports. We went to high school together and that’s when we became really close friends. We both went to mechanical engineering at Waterloo together, lived in residence together, walked to school together every day. Our first jobs were at Toyota together.
When he died, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. I can’t really recall ... you go through nights where you can’t sleep, you’re fragile as anything. You pile yourself back into your work — it’s kind of a distraction, and it’s the only thing that you have to do that feels normal.
I still can’t believe it happened. I still picture him walking through the door, and it’s OK and it’s not. It’s very tough. Obviously, I felt him with me those last couple of laps at Homestead (when the team clinched the championship), and I feel him being with me every day.
You had eight wins this season, four in the playoffs, and you won the championship. What clicked?
To pick one thing would be pretty difficult. Martin really bought into what we were doing and, over time, we bought into him, too. He’d say it (the car) was doing something and we’d look at the data, and we found that it was doing exactly that, so we trusted him. We worked to fix the problems, and he saw the results, and so we continued to gain trust. We had a really bad year in 2014, and it really tore us down to a base level, and we could all have left, gone and done something different, but we just decided to all stick together, and we didn’t give up, and we dug our heels in and said we’re going to make this work. Three years later, we’re sitting here as champions.
There was a moment when Johnson won one of his championships and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was whispering to him before they’d even received the trophy and, when asked, said he was talking to his driver about plans he had for the following season. Is that how you have to do things in NASCAR these days?
We’re different. We’re very good at prioritizing. When we win, we celebrate and we enjoy it. We party, we have fun and we soak it all in. And then the next day, we get back to it. But we make sure that we relish it for a bit. I think if you don’t then what are you doing it for?
After the last race, we were fortunate to have American Thanksgiving off (Norris note: he nearly said ‘Thanksgiving’ but, being a good Canadian, he caught himself), and then the awards banquet was the next week, which was a blast, having your whole team, 200 people, in Las Vegas together. It was like going to a wedding where everybody got married. It was about that level of fun. But then the next Monday, we got back to work. We had smiles on our faces but we were in focus.
Tomas (now talking to race driver Martin Truex Jr.):
You seem to work well with your crew chief. What is it about him?
He’s an unbelievable guy. His work ethic, his determination, his drive to be the best is as high as it gets. He’s the leader of this team, he’s the one who makes all of this happen. I’m just so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish together.
If you remember, it was not so long ago, in 2014, he was my race engineer and we were awful. So, the fact that he became the crew chief in 2015 and brought in some new guys to help him get the team going in the direction he thought it needed to go, we’ve just taken off from there. I love being around and spending time with him away from the track, but at the track, he’s just a beast; He’s the kind of guy you’ve got to have on your side.
NASCAR seems to be going the way of Formula One and Indy car — it’s a money game. Young guys are coming in and buying rides. NASCAR was the last holdout. Is this healthy?
I wouldn’t be standing here today if I’d had to find millions of dollars of sponsorship on my own to get a ride back in 2003 when I was first hired to drive professionally. With that being said, we do see that happening a lot today; we see kids bringing in money to get these good rides.
At the same time, we do see a lot of young talent coming up, especially in the Cup series. I’d say it’s probably harder today than ever to catch that lucky break but it’s still possible, and we see the benefit of that with the talent coming in. We have seven or eight guys under 25 in Cup right now that all got there the hard way, so I think it’s difficult but it’s still possible.
Two parts — will Danica Patrick get a ride for the Daytona 500, and are you sorry to see her leave Cup?
I think she will get a ride. I don’t know — there always are a few cars hanging around coming into Daytona that she could possibly get in. I don’t know how competitive they’ll be. They’re usually not the ones you want to be in if you want a shot to win, but as we’ve seen in past (restrictor) plate races, anybody can win them if you can get through those big wrecks, so you never can tell.
She did a lot for the sport; she certainly brought a lot of eyeballs to it, and she did a lot for women and it was definitely a bonus to have her around. I can’t say whether I’m sad to see her go or not but that’s part of the evolution of racing. We’ve had some other great drivers who’ve retired the last couple of years, and somebody is going to take their spot, and NASCAR is still here after Richard Petty
retired and Cale Yarborough
and all the greats. For all us younger guys, it just adds to the pressure to make it exciting and keep it exciting.
Will it be a little odd not having Dale Jr. around for the Daytona 500, now that he’s retired?
He’s the one who gave me that first opportunity, and I thank him all the time, and he says, ‘Ah, you would have got it, anyway,’ but I don’t know if that’s the case. He’s been a great friend and mentor over the years and will be a great friend in the future, but it will be different at Daytona without him, that’s for sure.
But I know he’ll be around, chomping at the bit, asking guys about how the car’s doing, How’s the track, what about the rules package. He won’t be far away and he’ll be around the sport for a long time.
Can you win another title?
I’m confident that we can put ourselves in position. We have such a great team, I feel the next couple of years are looking good for us. But you never know what the sport will bring.
You can be the best team all year long and win the most races and there’s still no guarantee you’re going to win the championship. I’m glad we got the first one out of the way and there’s definitely less pressure on us now and that should help us be more confident going forward.
But you never know.
Correction – January 20, 2018: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly said the Waltrips are from Tennessee.