The management team at the United SportsCar Racing series has its fair share of tough decisions to make in the weeks ahead. The most pressing item is paring down the list of suitors who want a date on the 2014 calendar, followed by announcing the schedule, and I can only hope that when those congratulatory calls are made from NASCAR's home base in Daytona Beach, Fla., they dial at least one number in Canada.
It's easy to argue the importance of every track under consideration for 2014, but I find myself less concerned about which state will host a race and more interested in seeing the long tradition of sports car racing maintained north of the border. Its fans, sponsors and drivers can ill-afford to be forgotten.
To start, an unfortunate trend has seen the number of visits by major open-wheel and sports car series to Canada decline since the turn of the century, along with gradual shortages in sponsorship and top-tier driving talent. The legendary status reserved for the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, better known as the Can-Am series (LEFT), was sparked during its glory days – a time when up to half of the events on the calendar took place in Canada.
After Can-Am's demise, the IMSA GT/GTP series, the FIA's World Sportscar Championship and the SCCA Trans-Am series continued to stoke Canada's love of closed-wheel competition. And that practice has continued with the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am, the most recent shepherds of sports car racing in North America. But amid the consolidation of those two organizations into the USCR – something that will lead to an approximate 50 percent reduction in major north American sports car events in 2014 – a guaranteed date in Canada is now in question.
Appeasing the incredibly loyal Canadian fans that have come out to support sports car racing since the 1960s is an obvious interest to protect; drop Canada from the schedule in 2014 and, as Indy car racing learned after leaving Toronto off the schedule for one season, getting those jilted fans back will be a nightmare.
Of all the considerations being made in Daytona Beach, open-wheel's cautionary tale in Toronto is one to study very closely. The IndyCar Series and Champ Car went through their own version of unification in 2008, and were faced with the same hard questions on which tracks to jettison or keep. “The Indy” in Toronto had been a staple on the CART/Champ Car schedule since 1986, but wasn't on the calendar for 2008 and the negative reaction – even with a one-year hiatus – was visible when it returned in 2009.
The recent 2 In T.O. IndyCar double-header in Toronto had the strongest crowds I've seen in a while, but is nothing like what it was before 2008. Add in the loss of recent Indy car events at Vancouver, Edmonton and Mont-Tremblant and older events at places like Sanair and St. Jovite, and it's easy to understand why something as simple as leaving Toronto off the schedule for a year continues to be met with diminished crowds.
Sports car events have also undergone a downsizing with Grand-Am's round at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (TOP) coming to an end after 2012, leaving the ALMS as the only major series left to keep fans engaged. Its event last weekend at Mosport, now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, is the obvious location for the USCR to choose, but whether it's there, Mont-Tremblant, or somewhere else in the Great White North, Canadians need to be a part of the USCR's future.
“I think it would be criminal not to have a sports car race in Canada,” says IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe (RIGHT), Canada's most popular driver today. “The sports car history here goes back half a century. It started at Mosport. The ALMS has been lucky to race there, the facility is up to par, and you can't buy that history overnight. Or rebuild it, for that matter.”
Ask Hinch what losing a sports car round would mean to his countrymen – leaving one IndyCar race and one Formula 1 event as the premiere offerings to Canadians – and his reply is instant and firm: “You're alienating an entire fan base. We don't have the biggest population, but it's our biggest event in many ways. It's something people get in line for; it's a family kind of thing for us and people drive from all over Canada to be there.
"It's a lot different than just buying a ticket and sitting in the grandstands. The fans love standing on corners, camping out – it's all part of a tradition. To think you can pull the plug on that tradition and have people come right back…well, you're not realizing how important it is to us.”
Fellow Canadian Scott Goodyear, who made his name as an Indy car driver but honed his skills in sports car racing, shares Hinch's concerns.
“When you think about Mont-Tremblant and Mosport, they are two of the most challenging tracks in North America,” he said. “If you can drive on those tracks and do well, you can drive anywhere. They are fast, they are different, and they teach you to drive.
“Grand-Am has got a bunch of interstate, ‘gentlemen tracks' on the schedule, which hardly demand the best from its drivers. They also have a few great tracks, too, but tell me: if you asked the best drivers where they wanted to go most of all, where do you think a Mosport or Mont-Tremblant would rank? Right at the top.”
Goodyear spent the early portion of his career combing through Canada for sponsorship, and also brought major sponsors from throughout the country to support his Indy car endeavors. According to Goodyear, the ability to develop more Canadian drivers and secure Canadian dollars requires more than a few open-wheel races on their home soil.
“For Canadians, from a driver's point of view, if you cut off that sports car side, you lose a huge number of fans and what does that say for the young Canadian drivers trying to make it in motorsport?” he asks rhetorically. “They need something in their home country to sell sponsorship against. Just some seed money to have a chance to, hopefully, one day get enough to get down to the United States. Not everybody is going to land in F1 or IndyCar.”
The driver-turned-broadcaster also presents an interesting scenario that struck me hard and which I hope will be taken similarly seriously by the decision makers in the USCR.
“When you're a young racer, you don't know if you're going to be an IndyCar driver or what; you're just hoping to become a racecar driver,” says Goodyear. “So you're looking for as many trailer doors to knock on and make contact – and you're trying to entice potential sponsors at home. But if the series isn't there in the paddock, how do you make opportunities for yourself? How do you convince a Canadian sponsor to support you if the series you want to race in isn't showing its support for Canada? How can you expect to sell a Canadian company on supporting you in America if there's no race back home for them to attend?
“When you're calling from a strange area code – a Toronto area code – to a sponsor that's based in America, and they ask where you're calling from and they learn it's Canada, the normal response is for them to reroute you to their Canadian subsidiary. Then you call that subsidiary, and they ask where the race is held in Canada… You get the point. So I hope the USCR realize what's at stake here.”
I do, too. Choosing between iconic tracks is an unenviable task for United SportsCar Racing, but with all that's at stake for its drivers, sponsors and fans, including at least one Canadian circuit on the 2014 schedule – and every schedule henceforth – is a no-brainer.