The end of 2012 means successful motorsport drivers will be snubbed once again from the inevitable athlete of the year awards in the Canadian sporting landscape.
This year's ignored athlete award easily goes to St-Hippolyte, Que.’s, Bruno Spengler, the 2012 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion. The 29-year-old was conspicuously absent from the list of candidates for the Lou Marsh Award, given to the person judged to be the country's top athlete.
He also has had nary a mention in any of the 2012 best of Canadian sports lists so far this year.
The Lou Marsh Award went to soccer player Christine Sinclair, who led Canada's squad to a bronze medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Despite being the first Canadian to win a major professional European racing title since Jacques Villeneuve took the 1997 Formula One world championship, Spengler wasn't even a finalist. The Lou Marsh Award winner is decided by committee of sports journalists.
There's no doubt that Sinclair was a worthy recipient, but it's also clear that Spengler's title and his career numbers in DTM stack up favourably against the Lou Marsh winner and finalists.
In the past seven DTM seasons, no driver has outperformed Spengler. Since 2006, the Canadian has amassed the most points, taken the most poles, and scored the most wins in the series. He never finished worse than fifth overall since his first year with a factory team in 2006. Spengler's 2005 rookie season in DTM was spent driving a year-old Mercedes car that was no match for the top teams; nevertheless, he took his used car to three top-8, points-scoring finishes.
Adding insult to injury, Canadian outlets publishing their 2012 highlights in sport this week completely ignored Spengler's massive accomplishment of winning a title in the hugely challenging racing series.
Not only did Spengler take the DTM title while finding his feet in his first year with BMW, he also grabbed the top prize driving a newly developed M3 race car that many felt would need the entire 2012 campaign just to work out the bugs.
In the end, Spengler took a series-high four wins and three poles in 10 starts, decisively leading BMW's comeback after it spent two decades away from DTM. To put it in perspective, Spengler amassed more than double the points of next best of the other five BMW drivers and his 149 markers constituted 43 per cent of the manufacturer's total haul.
On top of it all, he sealed the title deal by dramatically fending off title rival Gray Paffett of Mercedes for 42 intense but flawless laps to come from behind in a winner-take-all season finale that easily matched the pressure of a seventh game in a Stanley Cup final. Or an Olympic semi-final soccer match. The finale victory earned Spengler the title by four points. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
Unfortunately, Spengler doesn't practice a sport that features a stick or a ball and he does his thing in Europe, so his accomplishments go mostly unnoticed back home.
Put in baseball terms, he batted .400 this year with his four victories in a 10-race season. A hockey comparison would make his championship with a first-year team and manufacturer akin to winning the NHL points race while playing for an expansion outfit, something that has never been done.
In addition, he became the first North American to win the DTM crown, so it was also a groundbreaking title. He is already the first driver from this side of the Atlantic to start a race in the highly competitive touring car series, to take a pole and to score a win.
And you'd think the fact that Spengler is the first non-European to raise the DTM champion's trophy would be enough to merit a look.
For example, one sports columnist wrote that cyclist Ryder Hesjedal, who became the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia this year, was a strong candidate for the Lou Marsh Award because "understanding the significance of the unprecedented is never a given." He then happily chose to ignore the significance of Spengler's unprecedented DTM crown, not to mention the previously uncharted waters for a Canadian that his career has navigated.
For critics who assert that DTM is not Formula One, consider that the level of the driving talent rivals anything in the world outside grand prix racing. Many would argue that the top half of the DTM grid has at least as much talent as many of the drivers for the outfits below the elite F1 teams.
That fact makes winning a championship in the DTM series a tough task. In the past seven seasons that Spengler has been with a factory team, only one driver has repeated as champion and 13 different racers have stood on the top step of the podium. In comparison, F1 has also had only one repeat champion and 12 race winners in the same time period.
More likely than not, Spengler doesn't get a look because of the underlying bias among many – a notable number of sports journalists included – that racing drivers aren't actually athletes.
Some might recall Larry Walker complaining in 1997 that he lost to a car when F1 world champion Villeneuve took home the Lou Marsh Award for the second time. If you can forget for a minute that Walker shared the field with such svelte stars as Greg Luzinski, Cecil Fielder, and Fernando Valenzuela, asserting that racing drivers aren't athletes is just plain dumb.
A driver in a top level, high downforce racing series is right at the pointy end of physical and mental fitness. For example, several of these elite drivers run triathlons for fun. They work out several hours each day, usually run more than a marathon in distance every week, and have reaction times that would humble most NHL goaltenders. Their bodies must withstand forces of a few times gravity several hundred times in a race, they work in a enclosed space that regularly heats to more than 40 Celsius, and they don't get to sit on a bench when they get tired.
Bruno Spengler is a top athlete who proudly and successfully represents Canada in one of the hardest fought racing championships on the planet. It's time he got just a bit of recognition and applause from his home country for his amazing accomplishments.
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