MONTREAL - As one NASCAR official — who shall remain nameless — said Friday in the Nationwide garage area at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve: “Hell, you can’t spit in here this week without hitting a Canadian.”
Indeed, there was a record 10 home-grown drivers — almost one-quarter of the starting grid — who attempted to qualify for Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide NAPA 200, from the most accomplished — Formula One and Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve — to first timer Maryeve Dufault.
In between are drivers like five-time Nationwide Series winner Ron Fellows, five-time IZOD IndyCar Series winner Patrick Carpentier and 2011 Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Alex Tagliani.
As Fellows quipped during a media availability session about the number of Canadian entries: “Hey, that’s enough for two full hockey lines.”
For Carpentier, the NAPA 200 will be the swan song on a career that has spanned three decades in both IndyCar and NASCAR racing.
The 40-year-old native of Joliette, Que., announced earlier this month that once he crosses the finish line in the No. 99 Pastrana Waltrip Racing Toyota on Saturday he will hang up his fire suit for good.
For good, one suspects, unless of course he happens to win at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which he very well could in the very fast No. 99 Toyota.
“Oh yeah, if I win I might just call a press conference for Monday to announce my un-retirement,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum is 23-year-old J.R. Fitzpatrick, of Cambridge, Ont., who drives the No. 67 Go Canada Racing Ford Mustang to what he hopes will be victory and an opportunity to attract enough attention and sponsors to launch a full-time NASCAR career next season.
“I want to win every race I enter,” Fitzpatrick said. “But to win here in Montreal would be the best possible result for my career.”
A win would undoubtedly bring interest in the one-time CASCAR Super Series champion from the established NASCAR powerhouses in Charlotte, N.C., such as Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports.
It would also boost the profile of the Go Canada team that is trying to establish itself as a serious player in the Nationwide series.
“We are looking at corporate Canada for support all the time,” Fitzpatrick’s team owner Steve Meehan said Friday. “We have a couple of Canadian sponsors on the car this week — Serengeti and VIA Rail — but you are right, a win would certainly help us on that end.”
Fitzpatrick’s main rival for best young Canadian driver — Quebec’s Andrew Ranger — is also looking at the NAPA 200 as a springboard to a full schedule of Nationwide racing in 2012.
The 24-year-old Ranger is racing part-time in three of four of NASCAR’s major series — Sprint Cup, Nationwide, the K&N East series and the Canadian Tire series this season — but not full-time in any of them.
Ranger said that he was, at first, astounded when he saw 10 Canadians signed up for the NAPA 200.
“I thought ‘wow’ but after I looked at it I saw that everyone on the list was a good driver and deserved to be here,” he said. “To win here would give anyone a shot at a full-time ride next season.”
And to put all of it into perspective, the last word on the NASCAR Canadian invasion in Montreal goes to Randy MacDonald, owner of MacDonald Motorsports, who is really is the guy who started it all.
MacDonald has driven in, or owned teams, in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck series and the Nationwide Series since moving to North Carolina in 1996.
“For most of the last 15 years I was the only Canadian in these races,” the native of Oshawa, Ont., and owner of Dufault’s No. 81 Dodge, said. “I guess you could call me a trail blazer.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series records of Canadian drivers entered in NAPA 200
- Ron Fellows: 38 races, 6 wins
- Patrick Carpentier: 55 races, 0 wins
- D.J. Kennington: 47 races, 0 wins
- J.R. Fitzpatrick: 27 races, 0 wins
- Andrew Ranger: 10 races, 0 wins
- Jacques Villeneuve: 9 races, 0 wins
- Alex Tagliani: 2 races, 0 wins
- J.F. Dumolin: 1 race, 0 wins
- L.P. Dumolin: 0 races, 0 wins
- Maryeve Dufault: 0 races, 0 wins