Commentary

The Canada 500? It should happen

Updated: August 26, 2010, 5:22 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

I have long found Canadians to be the most cheerful, positive and innovative NASCAR fans of all.

To wit:

One February, I boarded a plane in Atlanta, headed for Daytona Speedweeks. This was in the days of easy upgrades to first class, and of liberal liquor service up front.

Two burly Canadian guys in NASCAR jackets sat down just behind me, and the flight attendant came to take their drink orders.

[+] EnlargeNASCAR Fans
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesRace fans welcomed NASCAR with open arms at the 2009 Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

"I'll have a C.C. and a Budweiser, eh?" said one.

"Same here -- C.C. and a Budweiser," said the other.

The attendant's voice showed annoyance.

"Gentlemen, airline policy prevents me from serving both whiskey and beer to the same person," she said.

"No problem there," said one. "I'll have a couple of C.C.'s, eh?"

"And I'll have a couple of Budweisers," said the other.

"I can do that," said the attendant. She returned quickly with two mini-bottles of Canadian Club and two cans of Bud.

I could hear the shuffling on the tray tables as the beer and whiskey were exchanged so that each man had his shot and beer after all.

As they gulped the shots, they chorused: "Nooooooo problem there!"

The cycle was repeated several times on the flight. Everybody was happy.

With Montreal hosting the Nationwide Series race this weekend, and with my long-standing belief that Canadians deserve their own Cup race, let's consider the case for Canada.

The hardiness of the fans at the Nationwide races in Montreal has been well documented during and after long rain delays, when people in bright-colored ponchos and slickers remained in virtually every seat.

Bring a Cup race to Montreal, and "I don't think you can build enough seats," Carl Edwards, winner of last year's event, told me the other day. "That would be a lot of fun. I was standing in Victory Lane and we had just won the race last year and the crowd was singing in unison. They are singing songs and cheering. I had never seen anything like it."

Some U.S. tracks draw significant numbers of Canadian fans.

Michigan International Speedway reports that 15 percent of its ticket sales for Cup races are to Canadians. The percentage has continued to grow, even in the economic hard times that lowered attendance from the state of Michigan itself.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway reports a steady 10 percent of its ticket sales are to Canadians. Watkins Glen's crowd was 5 percent Canadian for the race there this month.

I've never heard Canadians whine that they don't have a NASCAR driver they can relate to. Canadians, by and large, go by the notion that they can relate to all people, everywhere.

I don't think you can build enough seats. That would be a lot of fun. I was standing in Victory Lane and we had just won the race last year and the crowd was singing in unison. They are singing songs and cheering. I had never seen anything like it.

-- Carl Edwards on the possibility of Canada hosting a Cup race

"The crowd seems to cheer for the race and cheer for the success of someone, whoever wins," Edwards said. "They are less aligned with a driver."

This is not to say they aren't happy to have their own Jacques Villeneuve, the former Formula One champion and Indy 500 winner, in Sunday's race.

But what they really want is a Cup race, on the same track where the Canadian Grand Prix is run, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, named for Jacques' late father.

"The Montreal crowd is used to having a top level of racing, which is Formula One," Villeneuve told me on the teleconference, "so they are expecting to get the Cup as well."

"The problem," Edwards pointed out, "is the politics and the money and contracts and all those things."

NASCAR does appreciate its Canadian fans, and so it doesn't want to say openly that the chances of a Canadian Cup race are slim to none. But a high-ranking NASCAR official pointed out this week that the Cup calendar is full, and moving a race to Canada would require some track mogul shifting one of his or her races away from a U.S. track.

Because there's no suitable oval in Canada, the Montreal road course would be the likeliest candidate, and NASCAR really doesn't want a third road race in the Cup series.

Pragmatic as all that may seem, none of it makes it fair to snub some of NASCAR's best fans, anywhere, year after year, except for the Nationwide race Canadians have so embraced.

For a series without a single event in Canada, Cup racing has drawn a lot of media coverage there. Over the years I've valued as friends such professional racing journalists as Dominic Fugere, Dean McNulty, George Webster, Dan Proudfoot …

The most innovative and enthusiastic producer of NASCAR programming I've worked with, our own Jeff Ross at ESPN, is Canadian. (Ross is not, however, necessarily amused when he can't reach me on my cell phone and I tell him later that "I've been oot and aboot.")

All this, from a country that hasn't had a driver win a Cup race since Earl Ross of Alsa Craig, Ontario, at Martinsville in 1974, driving for Junior Johnson as a teammate to Cale Yarborough. That remains the only Cup win by a Canadian.

But they continue to bring their enthusiasm and their money south, never complaining, buying tickets in significant numbers at U.S. races.

Yet the NASCAR business machine won't give back.

If you ask me, this amounts to bad manners toward some very good neighbors.

But they'll keep driving to Michigan and New Hampshire, and flying to Daytona -- no problem there, eh?

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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