NASCAR's Canadian expansion


There was racing aplenty across North America last weekend. MotoGP was in action at Indianapolis, NASCAR Sprint Cup ran at Michigan, the American Le Mans Series was at Elkhart Lake, the Monterey Historics took place at Laguna Seca in California and NASCAR’s second division Nationwide series and the Grand-Am sports car series were at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

NASCAR’s race in Montreal is the only other race beyond the Canadian Grand Prix at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Many years ago there were a couple of World Sports Car Championship races at the track and CART/Champ Car raced there from 2002-’06 before NASCAR arrived in 2007 to establish its Nationwide/Grand-Am weekend. Montreal is NASCAR’s only big league event outside the United States and is quite successful attracting a healthy crowd if nothing like as huge as the turn-out for June’s Grand Prix.

The Nationwide race also attracts a bunch of Canadian former open-wheel stars. Jacques Villeneuve has run the Nationwide race the last four years and has been joined in recent years by Alex Tagliani, Patrick Carpentier and Andrew Ranger. Tagliani and Villeneuve qualified on the front row this year and both led the race. Villeneuve was the man to beat and was in command in the closing stages looking ready to finally score his first NASCAR win. But a series of late full-course yellows meant the race ran beyond its scheduled length and Jacques found himself running out of fuel on the final lap.

Halfway through the lap Justin Allgaier hit the slowing Villeneuve in the tail under braking, causing the local hero to half-spin. Jacques recovered but Allgaier was through to win from Villeneuve’s Penske team-mate Sam Hornish with the hometown man a bitterly disappointed third. Still, Villeneuve put on a great show for his fans who roared their approval for he and Tagliani throughout the race.

The Quebec fans were also treated to Grand-Am and NASCAR Canadian Tire Series races earlier in the day. NASCAR started its Canadian series in 2007 with sponsorship from the Canadian Tire Corporation which is the country’s largest hardware, automotive and gasoline retailer. NASCAR also started a Mexican series at the same time, and this pair of north and south of the border series are part of a superb ladder system NASCAR has built over the years.

The system includes two separate K&N Pro Series on East and West coasts, the Whelen Modified and Southern Tours and the entry level Whelen All-American Series. While open-wheel and sports car racing in America have allowed their key ladder series like Formula Atlantic to wander aimlessly and fail NASCAR has methodically developed a remarkably complete and effective ladder system.

This well-planned, comprehensive system is one of the key reasons for NASCAR’s tremendous success and has begun to produce an extremely healthy new generation of young drivers like Montreal winner Allgaier. And with its successful race in Montreal and dominion-spanning Canadian Tire Series NASCAR has established a substantially bigger footprint in Canada than any other form of motor sport. Instead of grousing about NASCAR’s dominance it’s high time other kinds of racing took on board and applied some of NASCAR’s lessons in building and running the sport.

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