Sideways and All Crossed up at Mosport
The track formally known as Mosport International Raceway has always been an awe-inspiring place. Competitors know it as one of the fastest, most fearsome road-racing venues in the world. For spectators it has been the site of some of the most exciting – and at times terrifying – racing action imaginable. It’s always been that way. But this historic venue, now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), with more stories to tell than all the other Canadian race tracks combined is going through an Extreme Makeover – Race Track Edition. I originally thought I’d write about the new ownership partners of Carlo Fidani, Ron Fellows and longtime general manager Myles Brandt. Trust me, they are well on their way to making CTMP one of the finest road-racing venues in North America. I’ll come back to them at another time. Today I want to share one of my favorite memories from my “formative” years in racing.
With full credit given to the Marketing Department at Canadian Tire, for the purposes of this blog, I’m goin’ old-school. It’s MOSPORT – correctly pronounced Moe-Sport. Not Moss-Port as most Americans like to say. Glad we got that straight…
While everyone has a story to tell about Mosport, this one is mine.
I will never forget the first time I attended an event at Mosport. I was a college student in Seattle and working part time as a wanna-be PR guy for a local driver who was trying to make it in the Formula Atlantic Series. In those days the Atlantics were seriously tall cotton. I think it was 1980 (I’m sure there is a historian who will correct me if I’m wrong) and Gilles Villeneuve’s move from Formula Atlantic Champion to Ferrari factory F1 driver two years before was fresh in everyone’s mind. But the Villeneuve who left a permanent mark on me at Mosport that year was Gilles’ younger brother, Jacques.
No, that’s not a fact-check error. I’m not talking about Gilles’ son Jacques, who has overachieved with his own world-class racing credentials including the 1997 F1 World Championship. I’m talking about the guy who Gilles’ son was presumably named after – Gilles’ younger brother.
Let me set the scene… Jacques, who was the reigning Formula Atlantic Champion, led the championship and qualified on the front row. Mosport was his kind of track. Fast, technically demanding, fast, a little rough around the edges and fast. His star was rising. And everyone expected he was the next F Atl export to F1. The cars lined up on the grid for the start and as the signal came to fire the engines and commence the parade lap before the standing start, it was clear something was wrong with Villeneuve’s car. The crew was frantic; Jacques was waving his hands. There was a problem. A big problem.
In seconds the crew made the decision that Jacques’ car was a non-starter, and he had to move to the backup car. I think he was driving for Douglas Shierson Racing, a premier team with all the right equipment and personnel to make it work. Of course there was a fully prepped backup car waiting in the garage area. So Jacques scrambled out of the car and took off in a dead sprint across the track, over the wall, across the pit lane and disappeared into the garages with a couple of crew members following. The rest of the field pulled away as the PA announcer stumbled through a rough explanation of what just happened. This was not normal.
So the field made its way around the track, cars aggressively weaving left-and-right trying to get some heat into the large Atlantic tires - big tires on those cars back then, lots of grip. The field took its position for the signature standing start. The engines screamed. It was loud… really loud. And it was a high-pitched, pure-bred racing engine harmonic melody that made one’s ears bleed. But no one complained. It was that cool.
The drivers got the go signal and the entire field simultaneously exploded away at the same time in one mass of horsepower, spinning tires and smoke. And a most wonderful noise.
And just as the front straight grew quiet again, the unmistakable sound of a single Formula Atlantic engine emanated from behind the garages. The crowd roared. Villeneuve was in the car with the engine running. The race had started and the entire field made its way around to complete Lap 1, but everyone’s attention was on the ear-splitting rev limiter engine noise making its way from the infield. Villeneuve was coming. I and many others stood in the pits, looking for Jacques and his backup car to come rumbling down the pit lane - no doubt to stop and confer with race officials before joining the race. Not.
The field of cars came roaring around onto the front straight to complete the first lap. The sound of Jacques’ car could almost be heard above all the others. And as the last-place car disappeared into Turn 1, once again the front straight was quiet… except for the sound of Jacques Villeneuve coming onto the front straight – a hard right from the race track (Turn 10) and an even harder right when entering from the pre-grid area that still runs parallel behind the pits. The car was completely sideways, left-rear on the grass, right-front a couple inches in the air with blue smoke pouring off the rear tires, the engine on the rev limiter begging for another gear, and Jacques’ hands completely crossed-up and trying to get the car aligned for the run down the straight into Turn 1. The crowd went wild. Can he do that? Is that legal? If I hadn’t witnessed it myself I wouldn’t have believed it.
So let’s review: he started in his backup car, on cold tires, with a cold engine, and no water or oil temperature. The car was no doubt not quite the same level of prep and setup as the intended race car – and he entered the race in last place more than a lap back to the pack. What could go wrong?
For the next 90 minutes, Jacques put on what can only be described as a car control / overtaking / risk-taking / hanging-it-all-out / every lap is a qualifying lap / tutorial. You get the picture. It was nothing short of amazing. And yes… He picked them all off not once but twice to win the race. Hollywood could not have come up with a better script. It was another example of truth being more astounding than fiction.
I’ve played the mental video of that experience many times in my head. And I’m sure there was more than one career-minded Formula Atlantic driver in the race that day that went home questioning his skill set and ability to make a living against the likes of one Jacque Villeneuve.
Mosport has produced thousands of stories just like this one. And beginning this season Canadian Tire Motorsport Park opens a new chapter and begins to write new history. I’m looking forward to being back at Mosport this year and witnessing all of the wonderful improvements that Carlo, Ron and Myles have made. And they’re just getting started.
Jacques, thank you for a wonderful memory from my misguided youth. And to Carlo, Ron and Myles good luck to you as you craft the future of Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and the freshly minted memories for generations to come.