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The finest gathering of racing talent Canada has ever produced will be on hand this morning at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, site of this weekend's Molson Indy.

They will gather under the Player's banner, the Imperial Tobacco Ltd. brand that has been at the forefront of the sport in Canada since 1961.

They might as well get all the flag waving done now, while they still can.

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The federal government's Tobacco Control Act requires tobacco companies to cease any form of advertising or sponsorship activity as of Oct. 1 this year. That means the end of Player's connection with racing, and a seismic shift in the sport's Canadian landscape.

"It's not a farewell, it's a celebration," said Imperial Tobacco spokesman Mark Thorne of the plans to bring together 15 former drivers as well as executives and support staff who have been part of the tobacco company's racing program over five decades.

The involvement began in 1961 when it sponsored the Player's 200, the first international motorsport race in Canada, won by Stirling Moss in front of 40,000 fans at Mosport Park.

It peaked in the 1990s when the company began sponsoring drivers and entered a team in what is now called the Champ Car series, providing racing opportunities for drivers who eventually became some of the biggest names in Canadian sports.

The only significant figures not attending are Greg Moore, the Maple Ridge, B.C.-born driver who died driving for Player's in 1999, and Jacques Villeneuve, who became the first Canadian to win the Indianapolis 500 and went on to become the first Canadian to win the Formula One driver's title in 1997.

"Jacques is testing in Barcelona this week [for his F1 team, BAR]" said his manager, Craig Pollock yesterday. "He was meant to be here, but his team took precedence."

It's a shame, because it was a mistake involving Villeneuve that began the most recent and high-profile period of Imperial Tobacco's involvement in racing -- the launch of the Player's Driving Development Program in 1993 and an entry in what is now the Champ Car series in 1994.

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In 1992, Player's sponsored the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivières, a stop on the Player's/Toyota Atlantic calendar. Seeking to recognize the 10th anniversary of the death of Quebec driving legend Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal-based communications executive J. C. Torchia -- then working for Imperial Tobacco -- persuaded his bosses to pay the costs for Jacques Villeneuve to race in the event.

The younger Villeneuve was driving in Japan at the time and agreed to come over. The only problem was that the the executives thought they were sponsoring the other Jacques Villeneuve -- Gilles's brother.

The deal went ahead anyway, and the response was so great it became clear that the the next step was to start a full-blown race program the following year. Villenueve was chosen the 1993 Atlantic series rookie of the year and won the same award the following season in what was then the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit. He won the driver's title in 1995, by which time Player's had a ladder system in place and was sponsoring teams and drivers at nearly every level of open-wheel racing in North America.

But the days of young, fresh-faced drivers helping push tobacco -- almost none of them smoked and promotional material invariably featured drivers running on beaches, mountain biking or rock climbing -- will come to an end after this season.

And while the health of Canadians may improve if the government is correct in assuming that a ban on advertising will reduce smoking, opportunities for Canadians to make it to the top in auto racing will be slim.

"There used to be a way for guys who had a chance to make it without huge family money, and now for guys to even have half a chance to make it they're either going to need huge family money or really good connections in the business community," said David Empringham who raced three seasons for Player's and is now a racing coach.

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"I'm obviously completely biased, but I think it's really going to hurt the landscape for future drivers."

How important is tobacco money to developing racing stars? A precedent can be found in France. In the 1980s there were as many as seven French drivers in F1, with Alain Prost retiring in 1993 as the circuit's career leader in race wins.

But France banned tobacco sponsorship of sports the same year, and 10 years later the only French driver in F1 is Olivier Panis, a 36-year-old journeyman who began his career in 1994, the last French driver whose development was funded by tobacco money.

After a decade in which Canadians have been accustomed to having countrymen challenging for championships at the sport's top levels, the well could easily run dry.

Since Player's became involved in Champ Car, only Paul Tracy has excelled without the company's help, and he's driving for the team this year in its farewell season.

The ripple effect could be significant. The three Canadian Champ Car stops -- Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal -- are among the biggest sporting events in the country, in part because Player's has always provided the home team.

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"Why is [Champ Car]so big in Canada? Player's," Pollock said. "[Villeneuve]would not have been in Atlantic and Indy Car if not been for Player's. They invested in the TV side, they invested in the promotional side and they gained space into the newspapers."

Already dealing with the difficulties posed by the financially flagging Champ Car series, Molson Indy general manager Bob Singleton said going forward in the the post-tobacco era will present its own set of challenges.

Player's has been a secondary sponsor of the races in Vancouver and Toronto since their inception -- a Quebec tobacco law prevented the company from being involved when the Montreal race started last year. In the past decade, it has pumped in excess of $25-million into running the racing operation and marketing it.

"You go from Jacques Villeneuve to Greg Moore to Patrick Carpentier to Paul Tracy," Singleton said. "It's good for us to be able to promote Canadian stars at a Canadian race.

"They've made it more relevant to the Canadian race fan. You're going to miss their sponsorship -- not only how they pay for it, but how they promote it and leverage it."

But Singleton is optimistic that there is enough Canadian driving talent on the cusp of the Champ Car series -- Atlantic Series star Michael Valiente of Burnaby, B.C., is a name that comes up often -- that he will have Canadian drivers to promote for some time yet.

How long that remains the case in a post-tobacco, post Player's universe, nobody knows.

"No one can ever understand how difficult it is to get sponsorship money," said Pollock, who owns an interest in BAR on the F1 circuit and PK Racing in Champ Car. "And without the tobacco companies it's going to be even more difficult."

Player's Racing - 42 years of motorsport history

1961 - On June 24, more than 40,000 people come to Mosport and watch Stirling Moss win the Player's 200, the first international motorsport race in Canada.

1967 - The first Formula One race in Canada, the Player's Grand Prix, is staged at Mosport.

1972 - Canada's Formula One stop becomes the Canadian Grand Prix. Player's is involved as a title or associate sponsor through 2000.

1974 - The Formula Atlantic series is introduced by Player's, with Gilles Villeneuve, Bill Brack and Bobby Rahal among the drivers.

1986 - Player's gets involved with the Molson Indy in Toronto. Its support of the Canadian CART events extends to the Molson Indy Vancouver in 1990.

1993 - Jacques Villeneuve, a product of the Player's Driver Development Program, is named Formula Atlantic series rookie of the year.

1994 - Villeneuve and Player's join the IndyCar series with the Forsythe-Green team. Villeneuve is the circuit's top rookie.

1995 - Villeneuve becomes the first Canadian win the Indianapolis 500, and at the age of 24, the youngest driver to win the IndyCar World Series Championship. Greg Moore, racing for the Player's Indy Lights team, wins 10 of 12 races and the drivers' title in CART's version of Triple A baseball.

1996 - Player's-supported drivers David Empringham of Toronto, Patrick Carpentier of Joliette, Que., and Montreal's Jean-Francois Veilleux win the Indy Lights, Atlantic and F1600 series, respectively.

2003 - Paul Tracy joins Patrick Carpentier on the Player's-Forsythe team. Player's also enters into a partnership with Rocketsports Racing, which signs former Player's driver Alex Tagliani.

Molson Indy

Site: Toronto's Exhibition Place.

Schedule: Tomorrow, qualifying, 3:35 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, (Speed Channel, 1:30 p.m.); Sunday, race (Global, CBS, 12:30 p.m.).

Track: Street circuit (temporary road course, 1.755 miles, 13 turns).

Race distance: 196.56 miles, 112 laps.

Next race: Molson Indy, July 27, Vancouver.

On the web:

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