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It may not be the most fashionable country in racing circles right now, but enlightened sponsorship could soon help to point the spotlight at Canada.

By all accounts, Jacques Villeneuve impressed in his recent test with Williams at Silverstone (see following pages). But his performance should come as no surprise, as to those of us who watch him regularly he seems destined to add the 1995 PPG Indy Car World Series title to an impressive list of achievements that already includes 1994 IndyCar and Indy 500 rookie of the year honours as well as four IndyCar wins in 1995, not the least of which is the Indianapolis 500.

Intriguingly, Villeneuve’s F1 baptism came less than a year after fellow Canadian Paul Tracy tested the F1 waters with Benetton in similarly convincing fashion. And don’t forget that Villeneuve’s Indy 500 triumph came at the expense of Scott Goodyear who, at age 35, is the elder statesman of Canada’s IndyCar fraternity.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Vancouver’s Greg Moore is rewriting the Firestone Indy Lights record books and, at 20, already has a multi-year IndyCar contract with Forsythe Racing in his hip pocket. In Toyota Atlantic, Toronto’s David Empringham is working on a third straight title, his primary opposition coming from America’s Richie Hearn and Quebecois Patrick Carpentier.

The fact is, Canada is having an enormous impact on IndyCar racing today — and could make a similar impact on F1 in the years to come.

Canada has long stood at the cultural crossroads of the United States, England and, in the case of Quebec, France. Case in point: a visit to any well-stocked urban Canadian bookstore will uncover current issues of MOTOR SPORT, Autosport and Auto Hebdo as well as the usual racing magazines found in the States. Turn on the F1 race in English-speaking Canada and you’ll find Murray Walker and Jonathan Palmer on the BBC feed via CBC, even as racing fans in the States get ESPN’s Bob Varsha and Derek Daly from a studio in Connecticut, pretending they’re in Sao Paulo or Imola.

Is it any wonder Canadian youngsters grow up dreaming of racing at the Ile de Notre Dame and Monaco, the Molson Indy and Trois Rivieres, rather than Terre Haute and Winchester, Daytona and Charlotte?

“There are four big races in Canada,” says Moore. “The two Matson Indys, the Grand Prix and Trois Rivieres.”

Although dirt track racing exists in Canada, it is a decidedly second tier sport; the vast majority of young Canadians aiming for a motor sports career move from karts to Formula Fords rather than stock cars or midgets. After all, Canada has a tradition of great feeder series in the smaller formulae, as well as Formula Atlantic and rock ’em, sock ’em sporty car series like the Porsche Cup and GM Challenge. Indeed, in the late 1980s the Export FF2000 series rivalled the Indy Lights and Super Vee series in terms of depth and quality.

“Canada’s feeder and support series are all geared to racing European style,” says Moore. “And the drivers you’re seeing today are a product of the great feeder series of the 1980s. Paul Tracy raced FF1600 and FF2000, I did FF1600, David Empringham and Scott Goodyear raced in the Player’s GM and Rothmans Porsche Cup. And don’t forget that Jimmy Vasser raced in the FF2000 series for a couple of years as well.”

What’s more, young Canadian talent has been nurtured by companies with a long term commitment to motorsports rather than expedient, high profile deals with established stars. Witness the association between Player’s and Formula Atlantic, which dates back to the halcyon days of Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg and Bobby Rahal. More recently, Player’s has been instrumental in bringing Jacques Villeneuve up through the ranks to IndyCars with Moore and Claude Bourbonnais next on the list.

And when Bourbonnais was hurt earlier this year, Forsythe tested a host of young Canadians as potential replacements at the sponsor’s behest, before settling on Toyota Atlantic/Indy Lights veteran Trevor Seibert and Bertrand Godin, respected for his Formula Ford exploits in France, but virtually unknown in North America. Although Seibert did himself a power of no good by crashing at Milwaukee, Godin showed promise in three outings at Detroit, Toronto and Portland, where he qualified third fastest.

Nor is Player’s atone. Scott Goodyear’s entry into lndycars in 1987 was paved by Rothmans: when he had to take a step back in 1988, Goodyear earned a living in the Rothmans Porsche Cup series while marshalling his forces for another, successful, run at IndyCars.

Although the Porsche Cup, GM and FF2000 series are now just fond memories. Canada’s tradition of professional, entry-level feeder series continues thanks to Esso and BF Goodrich which sponsor a FF1600 series in Ontario and Quebec.

Contrast this to the United States, where entry-level professional open wheel racing is a morass of competing series and sanctioning bodies virtually ignored by major sponsors. While Marlboro has done much to spur the growth of IndyCar racing, it has done nothing to foster young American talent in the F1LC or Toyota Atlantic series. Nor have most of the other big IndyCar sponsors, although PPG is co-sponsor of the Indy Lights Series. And for all the palaver from Tony George and USAC about the need for more young American drivers in IndyCar racing, they’ve yet to spend Dollar One to support an aspiring American IndyCar driver.

On the other hand, Winston supports grassroots stock car racing to the tune of several million dollars per year — and reaps the rewards with a steady stream of Winston Cup hopefuls emerging from short tracks all over the country.

One hopeful sign is that USAC and SCCA are jointly sanctioning a national FF2000 championship with races on ovals and road courses, and modest support from Ford and Yokohama. Appropriately subtitled “Partnership for American Racing,” the USAC / SCCA Formula Ford 2000 National Championship is a step in the right direction; one that holds the promise of an entry-level feeder system to professional open wheel racing comparable to what has long existed in Canada in one form or another.

What’s needed is for a Marlboro, a Valvoline or a Budweiser to step up to the plate and support aspiring American drivers in the same way that Player’s and other Canadian companies have long-supported their own. The benefits might not be immediate, but what company wouldn’t want the kind of publicity Player’s has garnered from its association with Villeneuve? Or that Player’s is almost certain to receive in the coming years from its support of Moore? D P