To the undiscerning Montreal race fan, NASCAR will always and inevitably appear to be the backwoods brethren of the more moneyed Formula One race that deigns to grace Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve as it, in recent times at least, sees fit. Thankfully, there is almost no such thing as an undiscerning Montreal race fan. It’s a big part of the reason that NASCAR’s annual Nationwide series event (officially titled the NAPA Auto Parts 200, for its two-hundred 4.36 km laps) in Montreal, August 19-20, sells out here year after year, making it one of the most successful destinations on the expansive NASCAR circuit…
Admittedly, stock car racing has humble roots, originating with the moonshine runners of the American Appalachian region during Prohibition in the 1920s, who required stronger, faster cars to stay just beyond the reach of the long arm of Johnny law (primarily in the area around Concord, North Carolina, which the vast majority of current NASCAR racing teams – Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing, to name but a few – still proudly call home). Compare that to today, where NASCAR has an estimated 75 million fans in 150 countries worldwide, and is second only to the NFL in terms of viewership in its country of origin.
The Nationwide series – which features cars that are sized slightly smaller and with moderately lower-horsepower engines – ranks immediately behind NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, and while technically second-tier, still attracts many of the top-tier Sprint Cup drivers as participants. (Many race fans look at the Nationwide series as the “minor leagues,” albeit minor leagues where the pros routinely come down to play ball.)
As is the norm, Nationwide races are held the day before Sprint Cup races, allowing some of the best stock car drivers in the world – including folks like Carl Edwards (who won Montreal’s 2009 race), Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, who won last year’s overall Nationwide championship – to compete in advance of the more prestigious Sprint Cup race.
Permitting top-tier drivers to race in the lower-ranked Nationwide series has, however, been a consistent source of contention, and this year’s edition saw a dramatic change in the rules governing the sport: While Sprint Cup drivers are still permitted to race at the lower Nationwide level, they are only allowed to collect points in one series, not both. Which most would argue is only fair. However, where that makes sense on a sportsmanship level, it poses a problem for Nationwide race organizers, such as those in Montreal: Will the star drivers, who are an enormous part of the audience draw, still come if that can’t collect points for their efforts and expense? Well, it appears they will.
Former Montreal champion Carl Edwards, IndyCar heartthrob and hellion Danica Patrick, hometown F1 hero Jacques Villeneuve (who finished third in Montreal’s NASCAR competition last year) and a host of others have all committed to the Gilles-Villeneuve starting grid this year. The NAPA Auto Parts 200, which is going into its fifth year in Montreal, enjoys an incredible amount of support in these here parts for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the aforementioned dedicated and knowledgeable race fans, but also the unique nature of the track, one of only two “road courses” on the entire 34-race Nationwide schedule (the rest are oval tracks).
The interminable (albeit somewhat accurate) joke is that NASCAR vehicles can only turn left, as that’s all they’re required to do on the ovals that constitute the overwhelming majority of the races. Well, the reality is that a good number of the drivers can only turn left, or more fairly, are considerably more comfortable only turning left, which can make for a hella-interesting race day when you put them on an unfamiliar road course testing a whole different set of driving skills. Which is to say the Montreal race isn’t so much a battle royale as it is a bumping and bashing war of attrition. Case in point: At last year’s Montreal race, only 22 of the (always) 43 starters were in any condition to finish the race.
And if that ain’t good fun y’all, gosh darn it, what is?
Guest blogger Jamie O’Meara is a Montreal editor and journalist who covers arts, culture and, er, stock car racing. Formerly the editor in chief of Hour Magazine, he is now an editor at Roverarts.com.
NAPA Auto Parts 200, August 19-20, 2011
Photo Credit : ©Octane Management