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Race Ready: Inside the GEICO NASCAR Team

This story, for GEICO Now magazine, published for GEICO by Totem, gave me a chance to take a look inside GEICO’s NASCAR team. I interviewed driver Casey Mears, crew chief Robert “Bootie” Barker (that’s him on the opening page) as well as many members of the pit crew. I love writing these “under the hood” -style stories. Each member of the crew answered any and all questions and really explained the work they do all while showcasing the bonds that make them a team.



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Racing’s dark days

Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi is in critical condition after a crash at Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, and I’m wondering, again, why I’m a fan of auto racing.

According to media reports (here and here) Bianchi’s Marussia left the track at Turn 7,  the same location that Sauber’s Adrian Sutil crashed a few laps earlier, with just nine laps to go in what would be a rain shortened race. Bianchi’s car collided with a tractor that crews were using to move Sutil’s car. Bianchi, 25, underwent surgery and was being moved to intensive care, where at the time of this writing, his condition was listed as critical.

At  its best, racing for me has always been about watching drivers put their considerable skills to the test; about technologically advanced machines that might, just might, make their way to my driveway someday; about high drama and minute details that could spell the difference between winning and losing. And even from my earliest days of being a teenaged fan, and before I began writing about the sport, racing drivers seemed to be colourful characters. Not just jocks, but people who had real opinions and weren’t afraid to express them. People like Jacques Villeneuve, Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe to name just three.

Then, someone gets seriously hurt, as happened this weekend. Or worse, as happened this summer and has, unfortunately, happened many times before. People are mortal. Race car drivers are mortal. And sometimes bad things just happen to good people.

But there’s more to it than that. Incidents like the Bianchi crash raise more questions than answers and make me, and probably others, question why I watch auto racing and why I’m interested in it. Why do I give my tacit approval of the risks that racers take? Part of the answer is that I still believe that there should be a place for risky behaviour in the sanitized, controlled world we often find ourselves living in. Yet it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for a sport knowing that something terrible could happen at any moment. Still, for some, and I’ve counted myself among them, that’s precisely why they go to races or watch them on TV.

As Road & Track‘s Marshall Pruett points out auto racing is facing a battle for relevance, apart from any concerns around its inherent dangers. Racing fans are getting older and fewer younger people are interested in the sport; TV viewers are down. I suspect that when non-fans hear about another racer being injured they might wonder why the sport still exists at all.

Am I being too pessimistic? Maybe. But it’s better to consider questions like these instead of not acknowledging them at all. As fans, we owe at least that much to people like Jules Bianchi.

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IndyCars set to return to Mosport

As Will Power was busy winning the IndyCar Championship last weekend, Canadian race fans were revved up to hear that Indy racers will make their return to Mosport in 2015.

According to a few sources (ESPN’s Robin Miller, the Toronto Sun’s Dean McNulty and The Toronto Star’s Norris McDonald among them) the race’s move from the streets in and around Exhibition Place to Mosport is necessitated by the 2015 PanAm Games, which will take place in Toronto next year.

The Toronto Indy race has had its ups and downs, but it’s an event that still draws the crowds and it’s one many people, myself included, look forward to. Still, a return to Mosport, with its hills, off camber turns and the legendary Andretti straightaway, would feel like a welcome throwback to the heyday of IndyCar.

Indy racers first took to the Mosport track in 1967 in twin races both won by Bobby Unser. It was an era when the track also hosted the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Canada (among a raft of other events). After a nine-year absence IndyCars returned in 1977 with A.J. Foyt taking the checkered flag. The next year Danny Ongais won. The F1 race moved on to the Il Notre Dame/Circuit Gilles Villeneuve after the 1977 event.

Ron Fellows – often referred to as a road-racing ace for his role as a NASCAR ringer and his multiple race wins – is now co-owner of Mosport and was instrumental in its overhaul and renaming to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, is obviously pleased that Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan-Pablo Montoya could be turning laps around his track.

“It’s exciting. How could it not be? We weren’t surprised when (Savoree-Green, the promoters) approached us. I’d say ‘flattered’ would better describe it. They are very good at what they do. The motorsport community is very small and we’re all in the same business, and if there’s anything we can do to help them we will. It’s important to keep an IndyCar event in Canada,” he told the Star. (Honda Indy and CTMP also released a similar joint statement.)

Couldn’t agree more, Ron. IndyCar, time to wave the green flag on Mosport.

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Women in the driver’s seat

Watching the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey games over the past few days made me think about car racing.

Hold on, stay with me. The women’s gold medal game was a fantastic nail-biter. Part amazing comeback by the Canadian women (after being down 3-0 in the third period) and part epic collapse by the U.S. women’s team.

Then the Team Canada men beat the U.S. 1-0. Good result for Canada but a bit of a boring game by comparison. (Then, speaking of an epic collapse, the U.S. team lost 5-0 to Finland on Saturday in the bronze medal game.)

But, when the Olympics are over, the Canadian men will go back to the NHL and resume their careers. The women will remain hockey players but won’t play in the NHL. But why can’t they? It’s not the Men’s National Hockey League, after all. And, one of the best aspects of the Olympic games has been the speed and the playmaking. No fighting, no unnecessary stops in play. Maybe that would continue if women and men played on the same teams.

There are few sports where men and women compete on an equal footing but auto racing is one of them, although the sport could benefit from more female racers at the sport’s top levels. It’s partly because in racing success depends in nearly equal parts on athlete and machine. The physical differences between the genders don’t matter as much as they might in hockey or other full-contact sports. But, if professional hockey evolves to become more about speed and skill those differences might not matter.

My guess is that as more girls take up hockey, they’ll eventually begin knocking on the NHL‘s door. And if they’re as good as Team Canada’s women’s team has been in Sochi, it’ll be tough to keep them out.

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Canadian Touring Car Championship gets F1, NASCAR spotlights

Gary Kwok and Bob Attrell duel during the Victoria Day Speedfest at Mosport International Raceway

Published in Globe Drive on July 4, 2012

For the 2012 season, Canadian Touring Car Championship drivers have forsaken IndyCar in favour of NASCAR and Formula 1.

Series president John Bondar says “scheduling difficulties” prevented the series from competing in a supporting role at the Honda Indy Toronto. But those difficulties meant that the mix of amateur and semi-pro drivers will have competed twice on Circuit-Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal by the end of the season – as a supporting event during the Formula 1 weekend in June and in the upcoming NASCAR Nationwide series weekend August 16 to 18.

Driver Damon Sharpe summed up the racers’ feelings about competing before an F1 crowd just prior to the race: “There is so much history here over the years and everyone just wants to do well here.”

Plus, they’ll head for the first time to the Circuit Mont Tremblant in Quebec on July 6-8. The eight-event season, with two races at each event, began May 18-20 at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park near Bowmanville, Ont., and ends at Calabogie Motorsport Park, near Ottawa, Sept. 1-2.

Going into Mont Tremblant, Sasha Anis of Mississauga, Ont., leads the Super class with 671 points in his G1 Racing Hyundai Genesis Coupe, followed by Philip Fayer in a Pontiac Solstice with 576 points and Anis’s G1 teammate Jonathan Rashleigh with 516 points. Atop the Touring standings sits Michel Sallenbach of Roxton Pond, Que., and his Mini Cooper S JCW with 664 points followed by Jocelyn Fecteau of Mont St-Gregoire, Que., in a Scion tC with 550 points and Paul Gravel of St-Guillaume, Que., Sallenbach’s teammate, with 536 points.

Anis credits consistent driving and a bit of luck for putting him at the top of the Super class standings. He was helped by two race wins at the ICAR circuit near Montreal on June 23 and 24 and he notched two second places in the season’s first two races at Bowmanville, then a pair of thirds during the Formula 1 weekend in Montreal. But he’s more concerned about maintaining that consistency than thinking too much about whether or not he’ll be on the top of the standings at the end of the season.

“The most important thing is winning the races and not worrying about the championship. I’m enjoying the racing,” he said. “My luck has changed this year and we have a really good car. If we’re running well and we drive well and win the championship, then great.”

Bad luck and mechanical gremlins plagued Anis last season –from being hit and spun out during a race at ICAR, to having a tie rod break and hitting the wall at Bowmanville. Then there was a turbo failure and a differential that fell off his car. “It was some really weird, crazy stuff,” he said.

Anis also has praise for many of his fellow Super drivers, especially brothers Remy Audette and Mathieu Audette in their Acura RSXs: “They were faster at ICAR and they really pushed me – they’ve got really great cars.”

Trust among drivers is key in any racing series, as drivers get to know each other and respect individual driver’s abilities, which allows them to compete and give each other racing room when necessary. But Anis admits maintaining that level of trust can be a challenge in fields of 37 cars, some driven by part-time racers who don’t compete in every race. Then there’s the crop of rookies to deal with. This year, there are 11 new drivers in the series.

“The first race all the series regulars were trying to figure out what these new guys were all about,” said Bondar. “But so far, so good.”

Some of those new guys (and at least one woman, Valerie Limoges of Shawinigan, Que.) are competing in the new B-spec class, an entry level class for subcompact cars like the Mazda2 and the Honda Fit. While Super class cars are heavily modified with advanced aerodynamics and Touring cars have some limited modifications, the B-spec cars are nearly showroom stock racers.

“They’re really low-modification, 98-101 horsepower puddle jumpers, ” said Bondar, who created the class as a low-cost entry point for new racers. The cars require safety modifications (such as a roll cage) and an aftermarket suspension kit, which runs about $2,500. “You can just bolt that on and go racing,” he said. “At the very top end, you could only expect to spend about $10,000.”

The B-spec class has proven unexpectedly competitive. The 2009 and 2010 Super class champ Nick Wittmer, of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que. leads the B-spec pack with 694 points, followed by Simon Dion-Viens of St. Joseph de Kamouraska, Que., with 643 points and Greg Pootmans of Toronto with 437 points. All are driving Honda Fits.

Bondar admits having a former champion potentially run away with the B-spec class wasn’t the intention of the class when it was created. But, he’s pleased that it can showcase the skills of a driver like Wittmer.

“It’s all skill – he really knows how to drive. He brakes deeper and carries more speed into the corners, then he’s faster on the entrance and exits. He really is putting on a driving school.”

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Is racing still relevant?

I asked myself that question as I watched the closing laps of Sunday’s Bahrain Formula 1 race – an event that became a lightning rod for protesters who say it was simply a PR exercise by the ruling Sunni party to mask its totalitarian regime.

Media reports said many F1 teams were “quietly uncomfortable” about taking part in the race but went ahead with it anyway. It appears of the drivers spoke little about, or even acknowledged, the protests in Bahrain, adding fuel to those who criticize them as pampered automatons.

Oddly enough, Bahrain was a pretty good race, in the sense of diminished expectations that most of us have for an F1 race. The pole-sitter won yet again, in this case it was Sebastian Vettel, trailed by Kimi Raikkonen about three seconds behind. There were some daring passes, pit lane miscues and some pretty impressive driving, which is not always on display in F1.

Still, I wonder how relevant F1 and even auto racing in general is anymore. It’s murky at best whether new technology used in race cars finds its way into road cars; the environmental cost of burning through barrels of fuel (NASCAR switched to unleaded fuel only in 2008) and piles of tires is rising and younger generations are less interested in driving, let alone racing.

So what becomes of it? I still believe that it’s important in our often sanitized world to appreciate those people, like racing drivers, who push the boundaries of control and put themselves at risk for the sheer joy of taking that risk. But is that risk worth it anymore? Haven’t all the boundaries been pushed? Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like the environment and human rights?

I don’t expect Formula 1 team owners, sponsors or drivers to have all the answers. But, if they hope to have a sustained connection to their fans they need to at least ask themselves those questions.

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Jacques Villeneuve: A Man for All Seasons

My interview with Jacques Villeneuve: former F1 world champion, CART champ and Indianapolis 500 winner.

Villeneuve interview (pdf)