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The Way It Is/ Former open-wheel racer Andrew Ranger is NASCAR's inaugural Canadian Tire Series champion

by Gordon Kirby
Just in case you hadn't heard, this year's inaugural NASCAR Canadian Tire Series was won by Andrew Ranger in his rookie year in stock cars. After five, formative years in karts, Ranger was aiming for a career in Champ Car or Formula 1, proudly racing with his hero Gilles Villeneuve's number 27. The French-Canadian kid rose rapidly through the ranks, winning the Fran-Am championship in 2003, his first year in cars, then taking rookie-of-the-year honors in the Atlantic series the following season.

Ranger made it to Champ Car in 2005 when he was only eighteen, driving for Eric Bachelart's team. He finished second in his second race for Bachelart but after a good rookie season Ranger found himself going from race-to-race last year, not knowing if the sponsorship was there. In the troubled world of American open-wheel racing, Andrew's career began to founder.

Late last year Ranger and his manager Alan Labrosse made the difficult decision to turn their backs on open-wheel racing. Labrosse had sold Wal-Mart Canada and Proctor & Gamble Canada's Tide brand on sponsoring Ranger in Champ Car and driver and manager decided the time was ripe to switch to stock car racing. NASCAR purchased the Canadian stock car sanctioning body CASCAR last summer, forming NASCAR Canada, and that news was followed by Canadian Tire Corporation--Canada's largest retailer--signing-on as the sponsor of NASCAR's inaugural Canadian championship. The combination provided Ranger and Labrosse with the perfect solution for their dilemma of how to try to advance Andrew's career.

Labrosse worked out a deal with Dave Jacombs' established CASCAR team for 2007 and the twenty-year old Ranger went out and won the championship in his first try! The inaugural NASCAR Canadian Tire series comprised four road course races and eight races on ovals and Ranger used his road course background to good effect. He won at Mosport, finished second in Montreal, Edmonton and Trois Rivieres, and wound up beating Canadian stock car veterans D.J. Kennington, Peter Gibbons and Don Thomson to NASCAR's first Canadian title.

"To win the championship and some races with Dave Jacombs and Wal-Mart/Tide was great for us," Ranger commented. "It was fantastic! I won at Mosport on the road course and was second at Trois Rivieres, Montreal and Edmonton. I had a couple of bad luck races but just to finish in the top five was my goal this year and to win the championship was just a bonus. To beat guys like D.J. Kennington, Peter Gibbons and J.R. Fitzpatrick who have a lot of experience in these cars is just great.

"Before I was thinking of going into NASCAR it was very tough to find a good team in Champ Car," Andrew added. "It also cost a lot of money and at the last minute I decided to go to NASCAR Canada, and it's worked out so good. To win the championship in the first year has helped make all my sponsors so happy and they are very big fans of NASCAR now. It's just fantastic."

© Alain Surprenant
Although nothing is set or signed for 2008 Ranger believes he'll be back to defend his championship with Dave Jacombs' team next year. "I would like to come back in NASCAR Canada," Ranger said. "I don't know if everything will happen but I think so. All my sponsors enjoy it and are very happy with the results this year. And me too. Just to be in the car and race with thirty-five other cars on the track, it's very different. It's great. I'm really looking forward to next year."

His manager Alan Labrosse is equally confident about putting together the sponsorship for another year in NASCAR's Canadian Tire series. "I think we're looking pretty good," Labrosse commented. "We've got some important meetings coming up with the sponsors, but I'm feeling very good about the situation. Andrew produced everything and more than was promised this year, and everyone is very excited about what he's achieved and how well the program has worked."

Ranger says team boss Jacombs and crew chief Bill Burns helped him quickly adapt to the Canadian stock cars. "It's a very tough car to drive," Andrew observed. "They are a heavy car and made to turn always to the left. It's easy to run too wide in the corner with these cars. It does take some adjusting but I was very happy. I learned fast and David Jacombs gave me a lot of help in learning the car. I have a very good crew chief, Billy Burns, who had won two championships and a lot of races with Don Thomson. He was a big reason why I was able to win a race and win the championship."

Alan Labrosse couldn't be more pleased with how well Jacombs' team performed this year. "They did an excellent job," Labrosse commented. "They're a small team that didn't have the funding to compete with some of the bigger teams. But we were able to provide them with the sponsorship that was necessary to bring them up to the next level and they delivered. They run an efficient operation and we don't have any reason to change for next year."

Ranger was particularly satisfied with his results at the Mosport, Montreal, Edmonton and Trois Rivieres road circuits. He scored his only win of the year at Mosport and finished second in each of the races at Montreal, Edmonton and Trois Riveries. Ranger found the mix of tracks to be an interesting challenge.

"Mosport is a very nice track and I won there and that was a great day, for sure," Andrew grinned. "Montreal is a very nice track, too, and I finished second there, side-by-side with Kerry Micks. That was a great race. Another nice track is Antigonish in Nova Scotia, and the last track we raced at, Peterborough (Kawartha Speedway), was very nice.

"Some tracks need some help, like Barrie, which is a very, very small track," he added. "It's not the type of track where I would like to race every weekend but it's the same thing for everybody. It was a crazy race there. Everybody was pushing on everybody. It was a tough fight and I was very lucky to finish."

After making the agonizing decision to change course in his career, Ranger couldn't be happier with the way things unfolded for him this year. "It was a great schedule," he enthused. "We raced every two weeks and the last month or two we raced every weekend. It was a very nice schedule and it was just great to go to the track in my motorhome with my girlfriend. It was something very different compared to Champ Car. It was a lot of fun and I'm really happy I made the move to NASCAR Canada.

© Michel Flageole
"This year I had fourteen sponsors on my car, just because of the name of NASCAR. It's a big name and I think NASCAR will just get bigger and bigger here in Canada. We had two races in Quebec at Trois Rivieres and Montreal where the fans were cheering for me. I could hear them and see them cheering on the last lap in Montreal when I was able to get past Kerry Micks. I finished second but it was very, very close at the checkered flag."

Ranger says it was a big help to him not to worry about getting parked during a race weekend because of crash damage or other financial shortcomings like he faced during his two seasons in Champ Car. "Compared to Champ Car where it was a question every race if I was going to be racing, this is perfect," Andrew remarked. "It was very tough for myself and for my manager in Champ Car and it's great just to know that I can jump in the car and race in every race and never think about if I crash, how will we pay for the crash damage like it was in Champ Car. To be able to go out and race every weekend to fight to win some races and finish a lot of races in the top three, and then to win the championship, that's what a driver likes, and I have a great feeling for next year."

As a result of winning the Canadian Tire championship Ranger has a guaranteed starting position in NASCAR's Toyota All-Star Shoot-Out at California's Irwindale Speedway on October 19th and 20th. Forty champions and top drivers from NASCAR's numerous regional and local North American 'touring car' series are invited to the Shoot-Out. But the race requires a different car than the one Ranger raced this year so he and Labrosse have been looking for a competitive ride which they might be able to rent for the weekend.

"We need to put together the sponsorship and find the right team to run with," Ranger said. "I would like to go because I have a guaranteed spot in the race but because they are different cars I need to do some practice laps before we go to the track to race. If we can put it together properly, I would like to do it."

Richard Buck is director of NASCAR's touring series for North America. Buck started working for NASCAR three years ago as director of racing development for Canada and was promoted last year to his current job. Buck has worked in racing for more than thirty years as a crewman and chief mechanic, most of it in Indy cars, and is pleased to see his baby--the Canadian Tire Series--burst successfully to life this year.

"It's been pretty rewarding because I stuck my neck out to the (NASCAR) board and said I believe it's a good idea and that Canada will support it and it will be profitable," Buck commented. "Canadian Tire has been great for the series. They're the largest retailer in Canada and to bring Canadian Tire together with NASCAR has brought some stability and marketing strength to the series that wasn't there before. Every racetrack we went to this year we set an attendance record, so the Canadian fans are embracing it. It's pretty cool to see."

Buck says one or two races will be added to NASCAR Canada's schedule for 2008. "We'll probably expand to thirteen or fourteen races next year," he reported. "The weather window is very narrow in Canada. We can't run before May or after September."

According to Buck, NASCAR's move into Canadian stock car racing has given the sport a big shot in the arm. "We're getting lots of calls and interest," he noted. "The car builders up there have got more orders already than they've ever gotten in their twenty-five year history."

Buck says Ranger's championship-winning performance was exactly what NASCAR needed for its inaugural Canadian season. For sure, NASCAR could not have invented a better champion in a young rookie who had already established a national profile across the Great White North as an international racer.

"It was a good year for us and a good year for him," Buck commented. "Obviously, it was a big career decision for him. Most people would have perceived it as a step down, but he did a great job on the track and his sponsors and manager have done a great job of promoting him. It's been great for him and great for NASCAR and the Canadian Tire Series."

Indeed, images of Ranger and Alex Tagliani together were featured in nationwide 'standups' promoting Tide and other products as well as the Canadian Tire Series and Canadian Champ Car race dates. This is the most direct and effective kind of marketing. Nor is it possible to ignore the irony in Wal-Mart being such a good promoter of it's primary Canadian rival's new racing series, nor the fact that this is exactly the kind of mass and cross-marketing that has made NASCAR so big in the United States.

These days, more and more young drivers across North America--the United States, Canada and Mexico--are emulating Ranger's move and heading to NASCAR. Many people in the industry grumble about NASCAR's dominance and hope that the stock car organization is beginning to struggle with a combination of things like less than sell-out crowds at many Cup races and the problems encountered by the drivers and teams in adapting to the hulking, unattractive Car of Tomorrow. But the fact is, in addition to enjoying a very large, highly committed fan base, NASCAR has built a tremendous infrastructure and ladder system way beyond anything ever imagined by any open-wheel or sports car sanctioning bodies.

At the top of the tree, the likes of Montoya, Villeneuve, Franchitti, Hornish, et al, are making the jump to NASCAR, while down closer to the roots there's no doubt that more and more young drivers will be following Andrew Ranger's tracks. If you want to be a professional racer in North America today, the road to NASCAR is irresistable.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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