MONTREAL – When NASCAR ventures north of the border next year for its yet-to-be officially announced Busch race at the picturesque Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in July, it should expect to be welcomed with open arms by enthusiastic Canadian race fans.
Well, with just one small requirement.
NASCAR better bring along its biggest stars.
"I'll come to watch the Busch Series race here in Montreal, but only if they have Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon in the race," said Tom Gamache, who lives in Montreal and watches NASCAR races on television every weekend.
Gamache considers himself a typical Canadian race fan who loves all kinds of racing. He attends the F1 race in June in Montreal and he also travels to Loudon, N.H., and Charlotte to see NASCAR live.
But much like their counterparts in the United States, NASCAR fans in Canada follow the stock car series because of the drivers, not the racing itself.
"Just to watch the Busch Series drivers race wouldn't be all that appealing to me," Gamache said. "I want to see the Cup drivers here. Of course the fans here in Montreal would also like to see a Canadian driver like Paul Tracy or Patrick Carpentier racing as well."
Those two veteran open wheel racers have dabbled in NASCAR – or plan to in the future – and very well could see action in a Montreal Busch race.
A quick survey among fans attending the Champ Car race here in Montreal this weekend finds that most agree with Gamache. They like watching NASCAR on television, and even though the Busch cars would be on a road course, they would still attend – but only to see NASCAR stars.
"Do you think Dale Jr. or Kevin Harvick will come, too?" asked Phillipe Lussier, who says he would make the trip from Quebec City, a journey of about 120 miles, to watch NASCAR race. He expects thousands more would do the same.
NASCAR executive Robin Pemberton revealed in a recent interview that the Busch date was designed to fall on an off weekend for the Cup series to allow for "proper participation" by the sport's biggest names.
Race fans Gamache and Lussier are part of an anticipated large crowd that will be attending the final Champ Car World Series event at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve this weekend.
A good choice?
NASCAR has long looked to Canada as a key part of its international expansion, having recently established a permanent marketing and licensing office in Toronto along with a close relationship with TSN, Canada's all-sports television network.
According to Robbie Weiss, NASCAR's international director, the Canadian market meets all three of NASCAR's criteria for an international event: It is a major world market, and it has both an established motorsports heritage and "an affinity toward Americana."
But is the road course at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve the best possible racing venue for the Busch Series?
Reigning Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, who has spent a considerable amount of time behind the wheel of a stock car in the International Race of Champions (IROC) series and has a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of a stock car, says no.
"Here it is critical to have good brakes and be able to get out of the corners quickly," Bourdais said. "The stock cars have no brakes to speak of and their tires are narrow. They will struggle here with keeping their brakes cool."
Bourdais says that while the other international road course the Busch Series visits in Mexico City produces good racing, the Montreal track is quite different, with tighter turns and fewer places to pass.
"I don't think it's a good track for stock cars, it will be very frustrating for the drivers," Bourdais said. "There is no flow from one corner to another here. It's all about braking and acceleration.
"I'm pretty sure it [the Busch race] will be a very boring show."
Still, NASCAR isn't exactly going in blind.
"It was a nice facility when we visited it," Pemberton said.
There are other positives.
The track is easy to get to even though it is on an island. Most fans use public transportation to get there, choosing to take the Metro (Montreal's subway system), which has a stop on the island, adjacent to the track.
The paddock area has ample room for 43-plus haulers and support vehicles, but the garages, which literally are next to pit road, are designed for the Formula One race and will make for a tight fit.
With its great restaurants, diverse off-track entertainment, ample hotel rooms and strong European flavor, Montreal easily could challenge Las Vegas as the favorite stop on the Busch circuit for many of NASCAR's toughest road warriors.
While Canadian race fans look forward to attending what may be their first NASCAR race in person next year, Champ Car fans and officials are pointing their collective fingers this weekend at NASCAR, which they blame for the open wheel series losing its Montreal race date.
Last year, when NASCAR first raised the possibility of racing in Canada, many people questioned where such an event could be held. Since there are no suitable oval tracks available, the focus turned to road courses, of which Canada has several.
Eventually all attention was focused on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which hosts the F1 Canadian Grand Prix and is Canada's most modern racing facility. Canadian race promoter Normand Legault, who promotes the F1 race and holds the sole rights to hold auto races at this track, had expressed a desire to bring a NASCAR race to Montreal.
Since local law permits only two races per year, one race had to be sacrificed – and it undoubtedly wasn't going to be the Formula One event.
The decision to drop the Champ Car race was an easy one for Legault, who despite having promoted three of Champ Car's four events in Montreal, found himself the target of negative press and outspoken comments from Champ Car team owners as well as fans after last year's event.
Legault was accused of removing much of the seating from last year's Champ Car race in an attempt, according to Champ Car officials, to lessen the value of the race and thus justify not renewing his contract with the series.
Following the race, a published remark by Champ Car team owner and actor Paul Newman suggested Legault be "put up against a wall and shot."
Legault then refused to cooperate with Champ Car officials for this year's event, forcing the series to find an alternate promoter for this the final race of its contract with the track.
On Friday afternoon, when Champ Car president and CEO Steve Johnson announced the series wouldn't be returning to the Montreal circuit named for the late Gilles Villeneuve, he blamed NASCAR for orchestrating the deal and painted Legault as its accomplice.
Johnson believes the decision to drop Champ Car from Montreal was another example of NASCAR manipulating the racing world in North America with what he describes as "an attempt to destroy all other forms of racing except for NASCAR."
"They want to control all of racing," Johnson said. "They want racing everywhere, as long as they control it."
He cites the ongoing battle Champ Car is waging to get a street race approved in Phoenix, where NASCAR's track arm – the France family-controlled International Speedway Corporation, which owns Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) – allegedly has had officials campaigning against a Champ Car street race, using the argument that such an event could lead to PIR losing one of its two NASCAR races.
Johnson also alleges that PIR track president Brian Sperber has described Champ Car to local business leaders as a lesser racing series that employs a poor business model despite Champ Car's proven record of staging successful festival-style street races.
Johnson's strong accusations directly contradict statements made by NASCAR CEO Brian France at Daytona in July.
"The one thing I would like to see is a healthy open wheel division, or two, whatever it is," France said when asked about the possible merger of the two open wheel racing series in the United States, the IRL and Champ Car.
"I would like to see all forms of racing [succeed]. That's in our best interests, because the tracks run at most two Nextel Cup races. They need lots of content, lots of auto racing."
As Champ Car continues to rebuild after hitting rock bottom several years ago (it declared bankruptcy and subsequently was sold to its current owners), its fan base, team owners and officials have taken to blaming NASCAR for all of open wheel racing's problems. Some even call NASCAR the "Evil Empire."
Their anger at NASCAR is a bit misplaced, as those in open wheel racing perhaps shouldn't fault NASCAR executing a strong business model over the past decade while open wheel has been a house divided.
All that energy instead might best be redirected into continuing a dialog with the Indy Racing League in working toward a single unified open wheel series that has the kind of appeal for fans, sponsors and competitors that NASCAR currently holds – an appeal that makes promoters want to hold races.
- Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
- Champ Car