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The Way It Is / What is Champ Car's future in Montreal and the province of Quebec?

by Gordon Kirby
I wrote this column a week ago intending it to run on Champ Car's website in my Inside Track slot. But legal considerations postponed and then cancelled the possibility of posting the column on the Champ Car site. I am pleased therefore, to be able to post it here for the record.

Inevitably, the insidious politics of the matter made for a very sad weekend in Montreal. On the face of it, Champ Car's fifth race in Montreal was also its last at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve so the place was consumed throughout the weekend with heavy hearts. Track operater Normand Legault has refused to engage in any negotations with Champ Car or Montreal Champ Car Grand Prix promoter Alan Labrosse about 2007 or beyond and Legault made himself conspicuous by his absence for weeks before the event ignoring requests for interviews from many members of Quebec's media.

Yet events on the racetrack and the enthusiasm of the fans rose above the desultory political drivel. Despite a twenty-four-hour rain delay, the Champ Car drivers put on an exciting and entertaining show on Monday morning in front of a surprisingly large turn-out of hardy fans. The Atlantic drivers also rose to the occasion very early in the morning by running their entire race on a still-wet track without a single yellow and producing plenty of excitement up and down the field, highlighted by a superb, race-long battle for the lead between championship rivals Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud.

After two, picture-perfect days of practice and qualifying, Sunday's heavy, persistent rain made it seem that the weather gods had decided to join Normand Legault in the job of chasing Champ Car off the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The bad weather and postponement to a grey Monday added to an already poignant atmosphere, yet there was a surprising turnout of fans on Monday morning with the grandstands opposite the pits and those in the Senna complex surrounding turns one and two at least three-quarters full and showing plenty of enthusiasm too.

The 20,000 or so fans who were able to make it out to Ile Notre Dame on Monday witnessed not only the last of five Champ Car races at le Circuit Gilles Villenueve but also the twenty-sixth and last Atlantic race at the track. Atlantic has enjoyed a 28-year run in Montreal, going back to 1978. The first race run at the track in September of '78 was an Atlantic race and the formula has run almost uninterrupted as the primary support race at either the Canadian GP or the Champ Car race, missing only three years in the eighties.

Of course, there's a great tradition of Formula B and Atlantic racing in Quebec as a whole at places like Mt Tremblant-St Jovite, Trois Rivieres, Quebec City and St Felicien. In company with the now-defunct Player's driver development program Atlantic gave us a continuing line of top-class Quebec open-wheel drivers pursuing careers in either Formula One or Champ cars. But now Atlantic has been driven out of its spiritual home in Quebec. Normand Legault has turned his back on the tradition of Atlantic in Quebec.

Remember that it was Gilles Villeneuve's tremendous performances in Atlantic that earned him his break into F1 in 1977 and provided the spark for the stupendous history of Atlantic in Quebec. Gilles gave his name to the track on Ile Notre Dame and it's sad to see the great tradition of Atlantic on Montreal that was founded in the spirit of Gilles's memory treated so shabbilt by Normand Legault.

Meanwhile, Legault refused to appear publicly or speak to anyone about his plans to replace Champ Car with NASCAR. He remained steadfastly unavailable in the weeks leading up to this year's Champ Car and Atlantic races, said to be on vacation with his family. Nor would Legault return phone calls to the many Montreal reporters who tried to elicit a comment from him in the month leading up to the race.

After Monday's race, race-winning team owner Paul Newman took the microphone on the podium to tell the fans gathered below that everyone in Champ Car wanted to continue to race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneueve. "It's fantastic track and a great city and we love coming here," Newman said. "We hope we can continue to race here in the future."

Earlier in the weekend, a disgruntled PLN made it clear to me that he's very unhappy with some of Legault's machinations. "Stopping any vendors or service-providers from working this event in the face of losing their contracts for the F1 race is a classic case of unfair business practices and restraint of trade."

In contrast to this most recent chapter in auto racing's geopolitical battle for power, money and markets, American open-wheel racing's most renowned driver Paul Tracy provided everyone with some good-humored gamesmanship last weekend. Tracy tried his best to appeal to the Quebec fans, wearing a blue cap adorned with fleur-de-lis (Quebec's provincial flower and symbol) on Saturday. On raceday, PT wore a blue wrestling mask and a fleur-de-lis covered cape as he appeared in the pitlane. He wrestled briefly in jest with teammate A.J. Allmendinger then wore the get-up on the driver's parade lap, waving enthusiastically to the crowd.

"When I arrived here and read in the newspapers that my competitor was asking the fans not to treat me well, I thought I'd try to make the best of a bad situation," Tracy said after the race. "I tried to make some fun out of it and go back and forth with the crowd. You heard the podium today. It was all cheers for me when I came up on the stage, so I turned a huge negative into a positive. It was a lot of fun. To get a warm reception on the podium was the opposite of when I walked out for practice on Friday morning. I had a lot of fun this weekend.

"Just having fun with the crowd is what it's about, interacting with people and having fun," Paul added. "I'm the kind of guy who can poke fun at myself too. I'm not so serious that I can't take somebody's criticism, or whatever they might say about me, and poke it at myself as well. For me, I have to enjoy myself. To keep doing this (racing professionally), you've got to have fun."

Tracy also said he has complete confidence that Montreal promoter Alan Labrosse will find the right venue for Champ Car to race at in the future. "I'm pretty sure we'll be back somewhere in Quebec," Tracy commented. "I've known Alan Labrosse since I started racing cars in 1985. He and I raced against each other in Formula Fords, and he's a stand-up, straight-up guy. He's very honest and I think he has good connections with the city and with the people here. He's been able to generate sponsorship for some drivers in the series from Quebec and I have a lot of faith in him that he'll find us another place to race in Quebec."

Like everyone else, Tracy said continuing to race at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve would be his personal choice, if that mattered. "This is a beautiful track, a fantastic track," Tracy remarked. "When I first started racing cars in 1985 one of the first races I came to was here to watch the Grand Prix. It's a beautiful facility."

Race-winner Bourdais backed-up Tracy's comments. "Champ Car wants us to be back here, we want to be back here and the fans want us back," Bourdais said. "There's only one man standing in the middle of it and I hope he makes an exception. Otherwise, just like PT said, we'll be racing somewhere in Quebec."

Promoter Labrosse thanked the fans who showed up during Sunday's heavy rain and those who made it to the track on Monday. "I think most importantly we witnessed that there's a definite fan base for Champ Car racing in Montreal," Labrosse said after Monday's race. "I'd like to thank the fans because as much as I'm a passionate motorsports person and earn my living in the business, sitting outside on an aluminum bench for five or six hours, drenched wet, shows your real passion for the sport.

"Yesterday, we had a good crowd and it would have been easy to say if the weather was beautiful we would have had a great event and a great crowd. But I think the testimony from the fans this weekend is that, rain or shine, they showed up. Unfortunately, we didn't give them a show yesterday, but they got a hell of a show today."

Labrosse emphasized that his personal preference for Champ Car in Quebec would be to continue to race in Montreal. "With regard to all the rumors of any venue or facility, my first choice remains here," Labrosse said. "We have a magnificent road course here with a lot of history, and a world-class, open-wheel series has come here the last five years and preferrably we will continue to race here. We have a magnificent racetrack and a magnificent city. As citizens we apreciate what we have here, but I think we have visitors who appreciate it as much, or even more. I think Paul Newman's testimony is the strongest proof of what we have to offer."

Labrosse's best options at this point appear to be reviving the street races in Trois Rivieres or Quebec City or racing at the repaved and refurbished St Jovite road course in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal.

"There are some ideas out there at the moment, but they're only ideas," Labrosse stressed. "Whether they are just ideas or whether you can actually put your hands on them and make something that is economocially viable and that we as Montrealers or Quebecers should be proud to have, is another question. But why should we not repeat something when it's successful?"

Assuming that neither the fans nor media can convince Normand Legault to change direction, I hope Alan Labrosse is able to find another site within the metro Montreal area. The market clearly is there and with a proper, year-round promotional effort, rather than just a few short months each year, Champ Car can thrive in Quebec.

And too, with the appearance of the new-age Panoz DP01 Champ car and the expected arrival next season of talented young drivers like Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud, Champ Car may be in the throws of a serious upswing next year. If Champ Car has a full field of cars and a brace of exciting new stars in 2007 Normand Legault may discover he has chosen exactly the wrong moment to sever his track's ties with Champ Car.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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