Ingram's Flat Spot On: Opportunity knocks in Canada


Ingram's Flat Spot On


Opportunity Knocks In Canada
by Jonathan Ingram

It was one of the closest Nationwide Series races in history. But it was on a road course with three guys named Boris, Max and Jacques contesting the checkers. And it was in Canada.

Robby Gordon, Boris Said, Max Papis and Jacques Villeneuve battle for the lead.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

This list doesn't include the perennial story line of the hard luck Aussie who is always fast but never first at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. So this was not the NASCAR of yore, when conductors were guys who worked on trains, not guys behind the wheel of a race car in Montreal where "les conducteurs" start their "moteurs."

As Brian France has led the movement toward a NASCAR that is different from the one built into a billion dollar enterprise by his father Bill France Jr., there have been setbacks. The Nationwide Series race at the Villeneuve circuit and the launching of the Canadian Tire Series are among the successes.

If NASCAR is about close competition and a variety of winning drivers from all walks of life, then the event on the Ile Notre Dame in the middle of the St. Lawrence River -- where most fans walk in across a pedestrian foot bridge -- captures the newer version of stock car racing.

I fully realize that it's largely vainglorious to write about NASCAR on anything other than ovals as a worthwhile endeavor as far as the traditional fans are concerned. And, it compounds the error to suggest that somehow NASCAR should be an open shop. It's not about welfare for those who can't win on ovals to have a couple of road courses on the schedule, according to the traditional fans.

What, then? Well, maybe the problem NASCAR has been facing recently results in part from needing a newer product in the grandstands, not necessarily on the track. Or maybe even a Sprint Cup race in Canada.

Carl Edwards, Kyle Kelley and Patrick Carpentier.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

In many respects, Montreal, where Sunday's crowd was in full blossom, is the most sophisticated city where NASCAR's style of stock car racing has been welcomed with open arms. It's not necessarily an open tap. In another nearby uptown locale, to take an example of a major setback in the movement to move NASCAR into new neighborhoods, chairs were thrown and wrestling literally broke out at a borough meeting in protest of establishing a stock car oval in New York City. That was a day of ignominy.

In Montreal, stock car racing thrives under the formula of local heroes behind the wheel at a revered circuit in a locale where the passion for motor racing runs deep, particularly among those who start their working lives somewhere outside of management. In this sense, the success in Montreal is one of taking advantage of an age-old formula -- promote it correctly and they will come. Moving into Montreal was an opportunistic move by NASCAR to shore up its brand in another country, a bid that did not work quite as well in Mexico City.

In Sunday's race, Boris Said finally got a chance to celebrate a victory in the Nationwide ranks. It was his second victory in NASCAR's traveling series, having posted his first at the Infineon Raceway in a Camping World Truck Series race. There have been a lot of ups and downs in between for the guy who started out in endurance road racing by working as his own pit crew. (He changed his own tires, and then got back in to drive.) More recently, Said was slammed in the door and out of the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen by Tony Stewart.

Max Papis got a chance to celebrate finishing second, before moving to Germain Racing's Craftsman Truck Series program, where the amiable Italian expects to be finishing first. Losing by a nose, the man officially known as Massimilano in his home country of Italy confirmed once again that his work ethic, passion and skill are the fundamentals of NASCAR racing.

Jacques Villeneuve.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

Jacques Villeneuve, trying to launch a Formula One team as well as jump-start a new driving career in NASCAR, again demonstrated he's a savvy driver who might be able to cut "la moutarde" in stock car racing if given decent equipment. Poor pole winner Marcos Ambrose, meanwhile, continues to suffer unhappy race results with the JTG/Daugherty team despite his proven talent. This time it was the car that let him down.

The diehard ovalists among the teams, drivers, journalists and fans, of course, merely nod and wait for the next regularly scheduled oval event. The oval races are like comfortable armchairs to those dedicated to the traditional form while the events on road courses jolt more like an electric chair. So it's not likely the twain will meet and one day we'll see a NASCAR schedule loaded down with road circuits.

It should be noted that all of the road circuits on the schedule are generally rounded off in a way that suits stock cars and are short enough to keep the relatively slow cars circulating regularly, which is another happy circumstance of the Villeneuve circuit.

The present appearances on road courses in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series are all a matter of an opportunity to get NASCAR into certain parts of the world where it would otherwise go missing in an age when it's difficult to build a new oval of any import or length near a major population center.

Should NASCAR be focused on major population centers and other countries instead of staying closer to its rural roots? The qualities, values and mores that served rural America began migrating to the city long ago as people moved and changed to find work. In this sense, NASCAR is following, not leading. Whether the sport's appeal can be transferred very far from American borders remains very much an open question.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com