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Montoya switch to NASCAR No. 1 story

It was, to put it mildly, a shocker – and bigger than just about all the other Top Ten stories of the year combined.

  • Scenic cityscape of downtown Toronto Ontario Canada during a sunny day

The biggest auto racing news story of 2006 was the defection from Formula One to NASCAR of Juan Pablo Montoya.

It was, to put it mildly, a shocker – and bigger than just about all the other Top Ten stories of the year combined.

To put this in context, retired driver Gerhard Burger said these words a few years ago: “There are only two motorsports in the world – F1 and NASCAR. The rest don’t matter.”

In this case, truer words were never spoken because Montoya, when he called his old boss, Chip Ganassi, to ask about a job, clearly wasn’t thinking of the Indy Racing League.

Because F1 is bigger than the sum of its parts, Montoya’s decision to leave was no big deal. But it was a huge coup for NASCAR, because Montoya is one of the most famous auto racing names in the world. He also symbolizes NASCAR’s push for diversity and you can bet it will exploit his presence to the hilt.

NASCAR can now do what CART talked about for years but never did: market itself to the “other America” – that huge population made up of minorities.

Montoya was the first to leave F1 for NASCAR. He won’t be the last.

Here, in order, are the rest of the Top Ten stories of `06:



2. Diesel wins Le Mans 24

Although diesel-powered cars are not new to racing, the victory by the Audi R10 at the world’s most famous sports car race last June drove home the reality that the times really are a-changin’ when it comes to fuelling racing machines.

We’d all better get used to the fact that the gas/oil days will end at some point and, in the meantime, the search for alternative fuels and power sources will have an enormous impact on our sport.

And not just in the tangible sense. Auto racing is an easy target. Remember the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s? Which sport got it in the ear for “wasting precious resources?” Correct. Auto racing. And that sort of thing could easily happen again as the world “goes green.”

Diesels at Le Mans; ethanol in the cars at Indianapolis. It’s just the beginning.



3. Canada vanishes in F1

It was a double whammy. Jacques Villeneuve was shown the door (again) by Formula One and the first Canadian owner of an F1 team, Alex Schnaider of Toronto, was forced to sell out.

Poor Jacques. He’s talking these days as if he left F1 with his head high, mission accomplished. But that’s just because he’s happy in his personal life – he’s got a new wife and a new son. Professionally, it was another slap in the face. He did not resign from BMW-Sauber, he was fired. Just as he was fired by BAR three years ago.

It really is quite tragic.

Schnaider, a Russian-born Canadian billionaire, purchased Eddie Jordan’s team nearly two years ago and renamed it Midland F1. Although it really wasn’t a Canadian team in the true sense (for instance, Schnaider wanted to get a Russian driver into F1; there never seemed to be much interest in promoting young Canadian driving talent), the owner is still a citizen and it is a shame that he had to unload it.

Schnaider had the best of intentions – like so many other guys who try to buy their way into Champ Car or IRL or even CASCAR (now NASCAR Canada).

The problem is, it ain’t easy. If it was, as they say, everybody would be doing it. (Which explains all the bankrupt teams, team owners and team sponsors.)

Alex Schnaider is far from bankrupt. But he probably got out when the going was good.



4. Zanardi tests F1 car

He was one of the most talented drivers ever to strap himself into a race car (F1, CART) and it was a miracle that he wasn’t killed in that dreadful accident in Germany five years ago. But he lost his legs and a lesser man would have given up.

Not Alex Zanardi. An inspiration not only to handicapped people around the world but to just about everybody, he learned to walk again using prosthetic legs and then went back to racing in the German touring car series. And not only racing, but winning.

Three years ago, he returned to the speedway in Klettwitz and drove a Champ Car for the 13 laps he had missed as a result of the wreck (which happened on lap 187 of a 200-lap race) and then, a month ago, he did two days of testing in a BMW-Sauber F1 car at Valencia, in Spain.

The next time you start feeling sorry for yourself, think of Alex Zanardi.



5. Bourdais wins third title

He did for Indy-car racing what hasn’t been done since Ted Horn did it back in the 1940s: win three straight championships.

Other drivers in other series (Michael Schumacher, Steve Kinser) have done that, and more, but Sébastien Bourdais‘s hat trick still ranks up there as one of the great accomplishments.

I’m getting ahead of myself here (next week I’ll be writing about what to look for in 2007), but don’t be surprised if Bourdais is racing in Formula One sooner rather than later.



6. Hamlin shocks NASCAR

The guy’s 27 and he’s a rookie in the top stock-car racing series in the world. But he’s not just driving in it, he’s winning in it.

Denny Hamlin shocked NASCAR by winning the first big race of the season, the Budweiser Shootout, at Daytona last February. Then he won two races during the season and made it into the Chase for the Championship.

He eventually finished third in the title run.



7. NASCAR buys CASCAR

The rumour had been around for several years. The deal was finally done in the latter half of the year and many people think it’s just the shot in the arm that Canadian national stock car racing needs.

But all’s been quiet on the NASCAR Canada front since. In this age of instant (and constant) communication, this has been somewhat disconcerting.

Canadian Tire is on board as title sponsor but that is just about the extent of what anybody knows about this new series. Where they’ll race, the number of races in the championship and the date of the first event is anybody’s guess.

I’m sure all will turn out well in the end but, in the meantime, the silence is … well, curious.



8. Schumacher retires

Some people will think this story should have been higher in the Top Ten but, since Michael Schumacher‘s retirement was no surprise, it’s ranked here just for the record.

I wrote, when it happened, that it would prove to be a bad thing for Formula One. But I was mistaken. There is a real sense of anticipation, missing previously, as we head toward the ’07 season.

Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion, has switched teams and there are no team orders at the “new Ferrari” (they insist). So the world championship is wide open.



9. Paul Tracy

Fighting other drivers? All dolled-up in a wrestler’s mask and cape? Drinking and driving an ATV?

His one hour and 15 minutes are nearly up. Pray Paul Tracy gets his act together so that if he can’t go out a winner, he’ll at least have his dignity.



10. Dana and Hebert

Passion, desire, dedication and determination. They weren’t enough for Paul Dana and Kendall Hebert.


wheels@thestar.ca; nmcdonald@thestar.ca

 

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