As the first weekend in April winds down, there is an anniversary that most racing fans will likely be unaware of, but was of crucial importance to Canadian racing through the 80's and 90's, and in fact still has an impact today.
This April marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Spenard-David Racing school at Shannonville Motorsport Park in Ontario, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it for the first 3 years.
I had been a racing fan as far back as I can remember, and once I got my drivers licence, barely a month before Gilles Villeneuve was killed in Belgium, I began to get serious about going racing, but really had no idea how to get started.
I had a little influence from family members, with a cousin on my dad's side that raced stock cars at local dirt tracks and a cousin on my mom's side who raced here in Canada, then moved to England when I was very young to continue his racing. Without the money, and a mother who wasn't terribly enthused about the idea of racing cars, I began looking around for ways to start racing that I could afford, and my mom could accept.
Finally, at the Toronto Auto Show in February 1985 I ran into a booth for the new Spenard-David Racing School. Of course I had heard of Richard Spenard, every one who followed Canadian racing had, team mate to Gilles Villeneuve in Formula Atlantic, race winner in Trans Am, and now standing here talking to me about his new racing school, based at Shannonville, less than half an hour away from our cottage.
After telling me about his racing school, and the racing mechanics program, I told him I was interested and would like to join, and left him my name and phone number. A couple of days later, I was back at the auto show, this time with my dad, and we went looking for the Spenard-David booth again. Spenard explained the mechanic's program to my dad, and after a few questions my dad told Richard he was OK with me doing the it, and Spenard went back and made some notes beside my name and phone number from a couple of days before.
Barely a month later I got a phone call letting me know if I was still interested, I had a spot in the mechanics program. My answer was, of course I'm still interested and I'll be there by the second week of April. All I had to do was explain to my mom, the school teacher, how I was going to quit school with barely 2 months left, move to the cottage and start racing cars...
I got there a bit later than some, a number of the guys were already there by the second week of April, with many of them getting there in the last week or two of March. When I walked into the shop for the first time, it was mostly set up, with the 4 Van Dieman pro team cars from last season sitting on their stands, body work off, getting prepped. It is an image forever burned into my memory, a scene straight from the pages of Autosport, and I was going to be a part of it.
What I don't think anyone at the time knew, however, was just how much influence the school would have over Canadian racing during the next two-plus decades.
The list of drivers that came through the school while I was there, and their championships and titles, is impressive; Jacques Villeneuve, Ron Fellows, David Empringham, Stephan Proulx, Christian Vandal, Nick Longhi & David Tennyson come quickly to mind. Championships won include the World Driving Championship, Indy 500 and Indy Car Championship, Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, as well as championships & race wins in Formula Atlantic, Indy Lights, ALMS, Canadian Formula 2000, Players GM Challenge, Rothmans Porsche Turbo Cup and just about any other significant series racing in North America from the mid-80's to the mid 90's.
All good things come to end and however, and in the early 90's Richard Spenard and Ray David sold the school, and moved on to other things.
Unfortunately, there is nothing like it today. Today's racing schools are more interested in corporate days, and follow-the-leader experience-of-a-lifetime marketing gimmicks. Real racing? Not so much. Developing race drivers? Not so much. Racing, you see, puts too much stress on the cars, and after all race cars are a big investment so we can't be using them for things like, say racing. I have actually had a racing school owner tell me straight out he has no interest in creating race drivers, that the money was in corporate days, not racing.
But the 80's were a different time. Back in 1985, the Spenard David Racing School was all about racing. Sure, we did corporate days, but the bulk of our work was 3-day racing schools, lapping days and race weekends. Oh, the race weekends...
That's what we were all there for. In those days, the mechanic's training program was a work-for-race program, we didn't get paid, but we didn't have to pay anything to be there either. We spent the season keeping the cars prepped for the schools and lapping days, and in return we got to race in the 7 weekend, 14 race school championship. It was a dual education, learning about the mechanics and prepping of modern race cars, plus the racing school and lapping days, with one-on-one instruction from guys that were actually race car drivers.
A big part of the attraction to the Spenard-David Racing School, and especially it's own F2000 school racing series, was the pro team. On one side of the shop was us and the dozen or so school cars (the number varied at any time depending on crash damage), while on the other side of the shop was the 4 cars of the pro team that raced across the eastern half of the country in the Canadian Tire F2000 Series.
Up for grabs for the School Series champion was a ride with the pro team the following year. And this was a fully funded ride, no need to bring a big cheque with you after winning the championship, just bring your talent. And for 1985, the pro team discarded the Van Diemen's of the previous year in favour of the all-conquering Reynard chassis. Just to make things a little better, Spenard-David also took the place of John Powell as the Canadian distributor for all things Reynard.
For those who couldn't come up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars for a pro ride, the School Series provided a great alternative. As a result, especially in retrospect, the grids we had at the school series were often stronger and deeper than those of the Canadian Tire Pro F2000 series. Drivers came from all over North America, 50 or 60 strong on most race weekends, to battle it out.
These were real race weekends, every bit as fierce and competitive as you would see in any pro racing series, anywhere in North America at the time. A dozen drivers were serious championship contenders, while a couple of dozen more of us were capable of winning races. We raced, we crashed, sometimes hard, got chewed out royally by Spenard for crashing, picked up the pieces, then raced again the next day.
It got long and often difficult for us school mechanics, so much so that we didn't end the season with the same mechanics as we started with. Few of us made it all the way from start to finish. Many race weekends ended up being crash-fests, putting even more pressure on us to get the cars repaired quickly, then get prepared for our own races. On several occasions one or more of us ended up sitting out a race for fear of crashing due to exhaustion. And while I can't speak for any of the other mechanic's, I wouldn't have traded it for the world.
During the course of this season, we are going to talk to many of those who were involved with the School, some people you've heard of and some you haven't, and I'll be adding a few more of my experiences from my time there.
Enjoy the memories during the next few months, and if any of you were there, let us know, we'd like to hear from you and share your stories with our readers.