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Fort Erie's Canadian Motor Speedway gets green light

The crew of the #13 car in the Nascar Canadian Tire Series, prepping for, and competing in the first race of the season, the Crown Jewel 200 at Cayuga Speedway. Images are taken from HD video, shot on the Canon XH-A1. Judy Legg sews a new Nascar logo onto Nik Lapcevich's driving jacket.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Shrill whinnies are being replaced by roar of 750-horsepower engines in the struggling border town of Fort Erie, Ont.

Will motorsport fans heed their call?

On Monday, investors from Kuwait received the green light to build a massive auto racing complex on 332 hectares of farmland near Niagara Falls and the Peace Bridge border crossing into Buffalo.

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The Canadian Motor Speedway will seat 65,000 and boast a 1.6-kilometre banked oval track (Canada's largest), designed by four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

Construction is beginning as the town's largest single employer, the Fort Erie Race Track, is set to shutter after 115 years of horse racing.

The hope is it will save a region battered by job losses. But some motorsport experts warn that just because you build a state-of-the-art track, doesn't mean NASCAR will come.

"There are a lot of people who want racing in their backyard. It's great for communities financially, but unfortunately, given the schedule and number of races, not every top series can race at every track," said Ramsay Poston, a communications expert in the motorsport industry, who spent 10 years doing communications for the U.S.-based NASCAR.

After five years of planning and navigating government approval processes, the Fort Erie track's backers say their confident in their investment.

"The way that the industry works is, first, you have to build it," CMS executive director Azhar Mohammad said. "There are various sanctioning bodies out there, such as NASCAR, that we believe would find an interest in a facility like ours. But you know, when the track is ready, that's the time to start having those conversations."

Mohammad, who grew up in Toronto, said he is a 10-per-cent owner through his company, Emirates Consulting LLC. The main investor is TII (The International Investor), a Middle East-based private-equity investor and majority shareholder in the oval track project.

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The track's specifications, as well as an additional 4-km paved road course, will be built to attract stock car racing, open-wheel racing, motorcycle racing and other motorsport products, he said. That leaves the door open to a number of race series, such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR, and other smaller motorsport series.

The facility could also host concerts, and there is a planned motorsport research facility that will be affiliated with McMaster University in Hamilton, he said.

Still, the new facility will face competition. Ontarians only have to drive 90 minutes from Windsor to reach the Michigan International Speedway's D-shaped oval, which hosts two stops on the Sprint Cup circuit, NASCAR's marquee stock car series. Watkins Glen, N.Y., a three-hour drive from Fort Erie, has a road coarse with one stop on Sprint Cup circuit.

But they don't have Fort Erie's prime location, Mohammad said.

"Michigan is a great track, but it's an old track, and it's also in the middle of nowhere," he said. "Fort Erie is 15 minutes from the brink of Niagara Falls. It's close to Buffalo. We have casinos in the area. Hopefully, if they can manage to sustain the horse racing, that will be another great value add for patrons coming to visit the speedway.

Jim Thibert of the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corporation says the auto racing track is just the start of the town's rebirth. He's just grateful the investors stuck around for five years it took to get approval from municipal and provincial boards.

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Monday's approval from the Ontario Board should be the last major hurdle, Thibert said.

"These are Kuwaitis and people from the UAE [United Arab Emirates] who have come to Canada, and want to invest here. They all want to follow our procedures and processes … but there are days when they have to wonder: 'Don't you people want this project? Don't you want the jobs? Don't you want the television rights? Come on.'

"They just shake their heads. And so do we."

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