Gordon Kirby

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CANADA’S NURBURGRING

It’s hard to believe it was 50 years ago. Not quite 13, I was delighted to be driving east on Highway 401 with my father in his ’57 Chevy. We were headed to the first professional race at the new Mosport road course located about an hour’s drive north-east of Toronto. The race was called the Player’s 200 and starred Stirling Moss, who had recently scored his famous victory over the ‘Sharknose’ Ferraris at Monaco.

It was a perfect June day, warm with blue skies, and we rolled along full of anticipation for my first big-time motor race. As we came to Bowmanville and took the exit north onto Highway 115 the traffic suddenly stopped, and it was bumper-to-bumper for the remaining 10 miles to the track. Still, we were able to find a good place to park on the outside between Turns 3 and 4. As we found our way to our spectating place we were pleased to see that Mosport was everything it was supposed to be a real man’s race track full of fast corners and plenty of elevation changes amid wooded southern Ontario countryside. Dan Gurney would later describe Mosport as a short version of the Nurburgring.

In the wake of his classic Monaco victory Moss was the man of the hour and sure enough he dominated the day in a brandnew pale green UDT/Laystall Lotus 19 (above), handily beating Jo Bonnier aboard a Porsche R561 and Olivier Gendebien in an R560. Moss won in front of a huge crowd estimated at 80,000, and Mosport immediately established itself as one of North America’s great road-racing circuits. Three months later Mosport staged another big sports car race, called the Canadian Grand Prix, which was won by fast-rising Canadian star Peter Ryan driving his own Lotus 19. Over the next half-dozen years the Player’s 200 and Canadian GP gave us a feast of rapidly-evolving, big-bore sports car racing culminating in the birth of Can-Am.

That was a fantastic era, and through the 1960s we saw many different types of cars race at Mosport USAC Championship (Indy) cars raced there in 1967 and ’68, with Bobby Unser winning the first year and Dan Gurney the next aboard one of his beautiful Eagle-Weslake/Ford V8s. USAC stock cars as competitive as NASCAR in those days also ran at Mosport and in 1967 the Canadian Grand Prix became a World Championship Formula 1 race. I watched the opening practice session for the inaugural GP from the top of Turn 2, a fast, plunging corner with a blind apex known as ‘The Elevator’. It’s a superb place for spectating, unchanged today.

Out they came, led by Jo Siffert in Rob Walker’s Lotus 49, followed by Jim Clark’s works car, Jack Brabham’s eponymous racer, Dan Gurney’s superb blue-and-white Eagle, and Chris Amon’s rasping red Ferrari. I was in heaven. Later we went up to the paddock and into the tent that housed the F1 cars and teams. It was delightfully cosy, as far removed from today’s F1 paddock and garages as you can imagine. We spectators were separated from the cars and stars by a thin line of rope. We could almost touch the cars and talk to the mechanics and drivers if we chose. I stood in awe as Jim Clark and Dan Gurney discussed the track and weather conditions. The abiding impression was that the drivers were colleagues full of respect for each other as much as rivals in a demanding and sometimes deadly sport.

The Canadian GP departed Mosport for Montreal in 1978 and the track slipped into a slow decline. But Don Panoz bought the circuit in 1998, entirely repaved it and established the ALMS’s ‘Mosport Grand Prix’ as the big mid-summer race. Now 50 years old, Mosport continues to run a full schedule of professional and club races, motorcycles included. There’s also a half-mile oval for stock and sprint car racing. So Mosport remains very much a driving force of Canadian racing and stands with Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Elkhart Lake and Road Atlanta as one of North America’s finest, most challenging and historic road circuits.

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