Monday, August 28, 2006

Montreal Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

In a true case of art imitating life, NASCAR will make its Canadian debut next summer, in Montreal, North America’s most European city. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby stars Will Ferrell, as NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby. Central to the movie’s plot flamboyant French Formula One driver Jean Girard challenges Ricky Bobby for the supremacy of NASCAR; Ricky Bobby must face his own demons and fight Girard for the right to be known as racing's top driver. Ricky Bobby won’t be in Montreal for next summer’s Busch Cup event, however for NASCAR it’s another step forward in the inevitable North American growth for NASCAR and the eventual globalization of NASCAR.

As NASCAR did when major league stock car racing debuted in Mexico City last summer, Montreal is expected to host a Busch Cup weekend, July 21-22, 2007. Again as was the case with Mexico City’s Busch event, many of the stars of the Nextel Cup are expected in Montreal with the Montreal dates being a weekend where there is no Nextel event scheduled. Canada’s first NASCAR event will be held at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. A road course racing site, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is on the site when Montreal hosted Expo ’67 the most successful world’s fair to ever be organized by any city or country.

City of Montreal by-laws dictate the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve can only host two events each year. Montreal promoter Normand Legault has the exclusive right to organize the two events. Currently Legault has the exclusive rights to Canada’s lone F1 event, the Canadian Grand Prix. Grand Prix weekend (usually held in June). Montreal’s Grand Prix weekend fills every hotel room, easily sells in excess of 175,000 tickets every year and has a significant annual economic impact for Quebec businesses. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve can accommodate up to 125,000 spectators on race day.

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has hosted a Champ Car Series event for the last five summers, as its second racing weekend. Five years ago Montréalers treated open-wheel racing by buying more then 175,000 tickets, reaching the lofty heights Montreal’s F1 event has enjoyed for many years. Last summer’s Champ Car event barely topped 40,000 in ticket sales. This summer’s event was rained out Sunday afternoon, after the drivers had completed six of the 72 laps of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. By the time Champ Car officials postponed the remaining 66 laps until today (Monday morning) at 10:00 AM, NBC and the Canadian rights holder (Global) had left the broadcast. Unfortunately, the Champ Car series is dying an embarrassing death in Montreal.

There are those who believe the cancellation of Montreal’s Champ Car Series event is directly related to the serious issues that exist within open-wheel racing. Open-wheel racing remains a house divided with Tony George Indy Racing League and the Champ Car Series competing against each other, unable to unify despite media reports that suggest the two groups may merge. That said, NASCAR has watched and taken advantage of open-wheel’s racing inability to understand as a house divided both groups are suffering. By the time the two sides work out their differences, NASCAR will have left open-wheel racing in its dust, in La Belle Province.

Legault who has no connection whatsoever with the ill-fated Champ Car event (Legault wasn’t in Montreal this weekend with the Champ Car Series event in town) wanted to bring ‘racing with hoods’ to Montreal for decades. Noise and pollution concerns are why the City of Montreal limits the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to two events each year. With the rights to promote Canada’s only F1 event, Legault knew he had the leverage to gain the rights to the other event at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Legault kept his interest in bringing NASCAR to Montreal as quiet as he could; until the news broke last summer that NASCAR was interested in bringing an event to either Montreal or Toronto. Toronto is home to the Molson Grand Prix one of the biggest Champ Car events annually. As attractive as Toronto maybe to NASCAR, the Champ Car event is held on actual city streets. The only Canadian city with a race course capable of hosting an event with a capacity in excess of 100,000 is the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. NASCAR may one day be in Toronto, but not until there is a facility capable of properly hosting the event.

Molson the lead sponsor for Toronto’s Champ Car Series event ended their sponsorship of Montreal Champ Car Series event a few years ago. While Molson hasn’t indicated if they’re interested in supporting a Canadian NASCAR event, that likely is how Molson currently chooses to spin their interest from a public relations perspective. Molson’s headquarters remain in Montreal and based on their history of sports sponsorship the brewery will be a major sponsor for next summer’s Busch Cup event.

Robbie Weiss, as the head of NASCAR's foreign affairs department, made it clear to The Winston Salem Journal’s Mike Mulhern 11 months ago, NASCAR was indeed focusing on creating a strong presence in Canada.

"I get Canadian TV at home and the newspapers, and people know, whether it's Formula One or Champ Car or whatever, Canadian races are some of the best promoted, best attended, most enjoyable races," Weiss said. "Canadians have a passion for racing."

"We remain committed to the Canadian market and believe that long-term there may be opportunities. But we have nothing at the moment about a specific (NASCAR) series or market that we are in detailed discussions on."

NASCAR’s Canadian partner is TSN, Canada’s leading sports cable network. TSN is based in Toronto. The French arm of TSN, RDS is based in Montreal. 32 percent of TSN is owned by ESPN. Disney announced a few weeks ago ABC Sports would assume ESPN’s branding and look. Both TSN and RDS adopted the ESPN ‘look’ several years ago. TSN and RDS would be very interested in seeing Canada host NASCAR events.

Mulhern spoke with Weiss last summer when NASCAR held their inaugural Mexico City event. Weiss noted at the time, how important reaching the Hispanic market was to the overall growth of NASCAR.

"There is a lot of work to be done, and no one can claim victory, by any means," Weiss says of NASCAR's Hispanic program, which is so far focused on the Busch series. "But in a very short period of time you have seen that we launched the NASCAR-Mexico marketing initiative last August and had the Busch race this March.

"The developments that have been made in reaching out to connect with the U.S. Hispanic market have been quite significant in just 12 months. At Fontana we had Adrian (Fernandez), Michel Jordain and Carlos Contreros, and hopefully that translates into a larger audience, more people in the stands, and greater awareness and interest among fans and sponsors."

Former Champ Car champ Canadian Paul Tracy agreed to compete in five Busch series events this summer. Its likely Tracy will be a key component to next summer’s Montreal Busch event.

It isn’t a matter of if, but when Mexico City and then Montreal graduate from hosting a Busch series event to being home to a Nextel Cup race. Indeed the globalization of NASCAR is at the forefront of Weiss’s vision for NASCAR.

"The property continues to develop very well outside the U.S.," Weiss said. "We just launched with Fox that all-truck, Busch and Cup events will be broadcasted live on Fox affiliates throughout Latin America, South America and Central America. That wasn't the case last year, and that wouldn't be the case without the event in Mexico City, without Adrian Fernandez, without the Mexican stock-car series.

"There is a lot of momentum here.

"And we have had some very interesting new deals this year in markets like India and places throughout the world where you wouldn't traditionally think we would have any marketability for our product.

"I look at this and say it proves we have a tremendous product. The level of competition, the quality of the broadcasts, it is a first-class sports entertainment property. When people touch it for the first time ..."

Richard Buck, NASCAR's touring series director, visited the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve last summer when he was NASCAR’s director of racing development for Canada. Burk, who from 1985-94, was crew chief for five of owner Roger Penske's Indy 500 victories, won by Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., was back in Montreal over the weekend, and while Buck didn’t come out and confirm NASCAR was heading to Montreal, he appears to be very excited about helping bring world-class stock car racing to Montreal.

Montreal’s Champ Car weekend included a CASCAR Super Series support event; stock car’s racing Canadian minor league circuit.

"This weekend has shown that the stock-car model can race here very closely," Buck told The Montreal Gazette’s Dave Stubbs. "They touch and bump, and it generally doesn't take a car out of the race. It makes for good racing, not in a single line, with a lot of opportunity to pass. And that's what makes it entertaining.

"These robust cars are more forgiving than open wheels. You'll see drivers outbraking and outbraving each other, especially in the hairpin and the first corner. They have starters - if a guy spins and kills (the engine), he'll start it up and drive off."

"The Nextel Cup guys will love it," Buck said of Montreal. "And this will be the one circuit where Juan Pablo might have an advantage.

"This weekend has been a good preview."

NASCAR continues to move forward with their plans to build a speedway in the New York City area. Montreal and Mexico City can expect to host Nextel Cup events within five years. The Pacific Northwest is looking at building a speedway in the Seattle area. There are a finite number of events NASCAR can hold in any given year. There any many who believe the evolution of NASCAR away from the sports southern roots is the last news they want to hear.

If NASCAR is going to add Nextel Cup events in New York, Montreal, Mexico City and Seattle, where would those four events come from? NASCAR would be pushing the envelop if organizers attempted to hold more Nextel Cup events. Its more likely smaller markets that currently hold two Nextel Cup events will be forced to host only one event.

Among the facilities hosting two Nextel Cup events in 2007 include: the Pocono Raceway, the New Hampshire International Speedway, the Bristol Motor Speedway, the Dover International Speedway, the Martinsville Speedway. Daytona Beach, Talladega Superspeedway, the Texas Motor Speedway (Dallas), the California Speedway (Southern California) and Phoenix International Raceway also host two race weekends.

In order to move forward organizations often are forced to make difficult decisions. Taking events away from traditional markets from non-traditional markets could hurt NASCAR’s image among the millions of NASCAR supporters who played the key role in putting NASCAR in the position where it can look at global growth. It may indeed be bitter irony for NASCAR devotees to accept, but NASCAR holding two annual events in small southern markets, in New Hampshire and in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is bad business when you have the opportunity to host events in major North American cities.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Winston Salem Journal and The Montreal Gazette