It’s taken NASCAR only twelve months to take centre stage in Canadian motor sport. NASCAR entered the Canadian market last year, debuting a mid-summer, second-division Nationwide Series race at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal and the first NASCAR Canadian stock car championship series sponsored by Canadian Tire, the country’s largest retailer.
Both debuts were extremely successful. A big crowd turned out for the first NASCAR race on Ile Notre Dame with native son Patrick Carpentier qualifying on pole and finishing a strong second in the race. Meanwhile, after three years in Atlantic and Champ Car, 20-year old Quebecker Andrew Ranger turned his back on a career in open-wheel racing to tackle and win NASCAR’s inaugural Canadian championship.
Then came last weekend’s second NASCAR race in Montreal and a Hollywood screenwriter could not have conceived of or executed a more dazzling story. First, Jacques Villeneuve announced last month that he was going to run the race. Then Carpentier, now a first division Sprint Cup driver with Gillett Evernham’s factory Dodge team, confirmed that he, too, would race in Montreal.
The presence of Villeneuve and Carpentier drew a packed house and Jacques and Patrick qualified fourth and fifth amid a brace of ‘road racing specialists’ who dominated both qualifying and the race. And it rained on raceday so that for the first time in its almost sixty-year history NASCAR ran a race in the rain with everyone bolting on ‘spec’ Goodyear wet-weather tyres which were built seven years ago!
Australian Marcus Ambrose – a former two-time, Aussie V-8 champion who raced single-seaters in Europe – was the man to beat. Ambrose qualified third and led most of the race but was penalised for speeding in the pitlane, falling to third at the finish.
As rain continued to fall, flooding the track, officials stopped the race at two-thirds distance. The victor was 42-year old Canadian road racing veteran Ron Fellows who has won three Nationwide races at Watkins Glen and is a key man on the successful factory Corvette ALMS sports car team. Carpentier finished second ahead of the penalised Ambrose while Villeneuve battled hard with the leaders until crashing because he couldn’t see through his wiper-less windshield in flooded conditions at the end of the race. And Andrew Ranger won the morning’s NASCAR Canadian championship race, then made his Nationwide debut in the afternoon, running well until the final, flooded laps.
So despite the rain, the strongly partisan Quebec crowd had plenty to cheer about and NASCAR has arrived with a flourish in Canada. With a successful Nationwide race in Montreal attracting plenty of sponsors and fans, a string of former open-wheel Canadian racers making the move to stock cars, and a fast-growing Canadian championship, the northern Dominion may be NASCAR’s biggest growth market over the next few years.