I ventured directly into the belly of the beast last weekend. On reflection, with both Grand Am and Nationwide series racing in Montreal, I was in the belly of both beasts or possibly in the two separate bellies of one enormous beast.
Canadians, and in particular, the Québecois, love their racing. I thought I understood that prior to my trip across the border. I knew I knew it before the first hot lap of the first qualifying session of the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series on Saturday afternoon. JR Fitzpatrick was the first guy out of the pits and was the first driver to hit the turn one complex on a hot lap. He missed his braking point and went straight on, the packed grandstands around turn one/two exploded with delight. Fitzpatrick is from Ontario and I don't think he speaks French. I have never seen a 'play off' atmosphere like this at a racing event and especially not after precisely no hot laps of qualifying. It was the Canadiens versus the Maple Leafs (or possibly the Bruins). In reality these guys were only getting warmed up. I stood outside turn one as the second practice session began, hometown heroes and US open wheel refugees, Alex Tagliani and Andrew Ranger were on track and the stands were on fire (not literally, that would have been terrible)! This was qualifying for a support series and it was magnificent!
Andrew Ranger is 22 years old and a veteran of two full seasons of the Champ Car World Series. As an 18 year old rookie he stood on the podium in Mexico in 2005 racing for MiJack Conquest, beating IndyCar pilots Alex Tagliani, Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter Reay, Paul Tracy, Oriol Servia and Nelson Phillipe in the process. His loyal but limited backers simply could not provide enough funding for him to run in the series as it moved to the new Panoz chassis in 2007 and Ranger made the brave and pivotal decision to concentrate on tin top racing in his native Canada. He won the Canadian Tire Series in his rookie season and is likely to take the title again this year. He is a big star here and it doesn't do him any harm to race with a very large '27' on the side of his car either. It was his father's number and, of course, the number globally synonymous with both Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve. His third place performance in the Nationwide Series on Sunday could easily springboard Ranger into a lucrative Sprint Cup career. Sadly, it looks like another massive young talent and North American star has slipped through the open wheel net directly into the clutches of NASCAR.
Everywhere one looked at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve there were CART/CCWS/IndyCar refugees. The Nationwide series had Alex Tagliani, Max Papis, Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve, Andrew Ranger, Stanton Barret and Michael McDowall while Buddy Rice was pedaling a Daytona Prototype in the GrandAm race on Saturday.
Running the Penske DP car, Will Power's IndyCar crew were embroiled in a tremendous battle with the Stallings team throughout Saturday's race. I was able to have a brief word with Penske's pit entry spotter (no other team had one) who was confident that Will Power would be back with the IndyCar team in 2010, which is very good news.
Sunday's Nationwide race was ruined by the weather, the insanity of the governing body and a handful of inept drivers who have difficulty turning both ways even before adding precipitation to the equation. The decision to halt the race in order to let the teams change to wet settings was as tedious as it was hilarious. By the time the teams made the changes, the rain had stopped. Unleashing 40 plus cars into turn one on a damp track was an absolutely insane decision and destroyed the race as a spectacle. In the end almost half the race was run under caution. Think of that the next time you hear the phrase 'the 43 best drivers in the World!'
I enjoy stock car road racing a lot and it can to be hugely exciting watching those big cumbersome cars negotiate their way around a great road racing facility like Montreal. But NASCAR seems to constantly come up with elaborate new ways of opening themselves up for ridicule from the open wheel community and rightly so. 'Plate racing' on super speedways has long been an object of mirth amongst many IndyCar fans but one has to be careful. The recent oval races at Kentucky and Chicagoland were wonderful spectacles but fundamentally IndyCar on these tracks is simply restrictor plate racing with open wheels, contrived and quasi-fake. That is not to say that it is not enjoyable but it really should not be what this series is all about. This particular form or racing is also massively dangerous, something explored by the excellent James Broomhead in a blogpost here.
The all-oval IRL had racing like this week in and week out along with low ratings and poor attendances at many venues. Reverting to this formula when the series has smaller crowds and even less media visibility is not the answer. Sadly the answer is multiple engine and chassis choices and a variety of answers to the same technical question but that is so far in the future, there is no point in talking about it right now. At this point I would happily take a V6 Honda Turbo with another 300 hp which would at least reduce the amount of 100% throttle racing we have now.
Until then, I'm not sure any of us can accuse NASCAR of artificial competition and/or spectacle. Although almost all of the IndyCar drivers can cope with a little bit of rain.