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Ron Fellows in the garage with his NASCAR Sprint Cup car. (Canadian Tire)
Ron Fellows in the garage with his NASCAR Sprint Cup car. (Canadian Tire)

Motorsports

New hall of famers praise Canadian Tire for its involvement in racing Add to ...

During the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, most of the honourees made a point to mention Canadian Tire’s increasing involvement in racing in this country.

In the past few years, the retail giant has emerged as this country’s biggest corporate supporter of racing and drivers, after a decade of frustration and missed opportunities for Canada’s motorsport talent.

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The retailer was not only the presenting sponsor of the hall of fame ceremonies, but it also puts up the cash for youngsters in the Canadian Karting Championship and bankrolls this country’s entry at the Rotax World Finals.

Those karting moves are the latest investments in Canadian talent from a corporation that also became the title sponsor of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP, formerly Mosport International Raceway) two years ago in partnership with its long-time driver Ron Fellows, who has been sponsored by the brand on numerous occasions in NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide races. It is also the presenting sponsor for the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series.

There’s no doubt that Canadian Tire’s involvement in CTMP played a significant role in getting the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the track earlier this year and its active promotion of the event helped ensure a huge crowd showed up on race day.

The emergence of Canadian Tire as a corporate sponsor is a welcome development in Canadian racing because when it is done right, the results can be astonishing as racing fans saw during the Player’s driver development era.

And the passion that becomes apparent anytime the president if Canadian Tire Retail Allan MacDonald starts talking about racing is reminiscent of one of this country’s most influential and unsung heroes of motorsport: the late Bob Bexon, who was behind the Player’s program.

It all bodes well for Canadian racing, and easily the reason why Canadian Tire received kudos on Saturday from the inductees, including the legendary Mario Andretti who was put in the hall under the international category.

The Canadian inductees were: driver and track official Bob Armstrong, World of Outlaws competitor Jimmy Carr, road racer Ron Fellows, stock car racer Tom Walters, and track owners Jon and Sharon Fletcher.

Although it’s still early years, the expanding involvement of Canadian Tire sparks memories glory days of two decades ago when Imperial Tobacco got heavily into the racing game, mostly under the leadership of Bexon, who died in a bicycle accident in 2008. The cigarette brand is probably best known for its sponsorship of the Player’s Forsythe Team and Team Kool Green in the old Championship Auto Racing Teams Series (commonly known as CART and later as Champ Car). But it wasn’t just about slapping a cigarette name on a few cars – Bexon and Imperial Tobacco also made Canadian driver development a priority.

The tobacco company first appeared at a racetrack in 1961 at the old Mosport International Raceway, ironically now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, as the title sponsor of the Player’s 200. A couple of decades later, Bexon essentially saved Paul Tracy’s career after he was dropped by Roger Penske following the 1997 season with a deal to run the Canadian alongside now four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti with Barry Green’s outfit, which became known as Team Kool Green.

From there, the program produced a list of Player’s-supported drivers that is essentially a who’s who of Canadian motorsport in the past few decades. In addition to 2003 Champ Car champion Tracy, drivers finding backing and success under the blue and white Player’s banner were CART and NASCAR racer Patrick Carpentier, the late Greg Moore who died in a crash in the 1999 CART finale, Champ Car driver Alex Tagliani, and 1997 Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who also took home the CART championship and the Indianapolis 500 title in 1995. Other drivers who went through the program include 1998 Atlantic champion Lee Bentham and 1996 Indy Light champion and two-time Atlantic champion (1993 and 1994) David Empringham.

In fact, the Player’s system worked so well and bore so much fruit that there weren’t enough seats available for the talent it produced. It all stopped suddenly in October 2003, when Canadian anti-tobacco legislation banned cigarette sponsorships and the Imperial Tobacco money went away.

In the end, the Player’s program was a blessing and a curse: Although it made the career of many Canadian racers with its big budgets and comprehensive development program, it was also the only game in town when it came to Canadian sponsors and there was nothing out there to replace it when the tobacco laws forced it to butt out.

The following decade was a tough one for young drivers coming through the ladder series, with little money and support available to help them find their feet and make a career of racing.

Yes, IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters racers Bruno Spengler and Robert Wickens made it through on a combination of talent, luck and timing. The problem is that only Hinchcliffe made it to the place he wanted to be. Both Spengler and Wickens have the talent to make it to Formula One, but without flush backers, never got a legitimate shot.

And the list of hugely promising Canadian drivers in the past decade who never reached their full potential for the same reason includes massive talents like Sean McIntosh, Daniel Morad, Michael Valiante, and Andrew Ranger.

Now, the drought is not completely over just because one company likes racing, and there’s little chance that Canadian Tire can help every driver who needs it. But the involvement of a huge Canadian brand may just pull others into the fold and expand the backing available for young drivers in Canada.

And this country has several young racers who have handfuls of talent, but need a leg up. Kids like Cameron Hayley who competes in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and several young open wheelers, including USF2000 points leader Scott Hargrove and fellow USF2000 drivers Garett Grist and Jesse Lazare, 2013 Toyo Tires F1600 runner-up Zach Robichon, and Gianmarco Raimondo, who was runner-up in the 2012 Euro F3 Open Series and made his GP2 debut in Singapore earlier this month.

Canadian Tire isn’t the solution to all the problems these young drivers face as they seek to make a career of racing, but there’s no doubt it’s a huge shift in the right direction.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone

Twitter: @jpappone

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