Opinion: Motorsport & Auto Shows - A Visible Disconnect

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 Player's Challenge Camaro on display in a special section of the show honouring Canadian race driver Ron Fellows. (Photos-Perry Blocher/RaceCanada.ca)

 

By: Chris Jameson/RaceCanada
February 15, 2014
 

Because Race Car … or not.

There was a time – and it seems not that long ago – that auto manufacturers embraced the opportunity to not only showcase new models and concept cars, but also point proudly to their motor racing heritage when exhibiting at auto shows. It seemed important at one time and, dare we say, at some shows this still happens. Manufacturers will work with teams to feature race cars and drivers – especially drivers who are local to a particular show. Sadly, at the auto show in Toronto – a show where manufacturers with strong racing heritage have access to some of the elite drivers in their respective series – the opportunity was not realized.

Okay, there was one, and kudos to Honda Canada for making Indycar driver and Oakville, Ontario native James Hinchcliffe part of the proceedings. James was on hand to introduce the new 2015 Honda Fit and Honda. Primary sponsor of the Honda Indy Toronto, Honda also had a display about this summer’s race along with an open wheel show car painted in the colours of James’ 2014 sponsor, United Fiber & Data.

Good on ya Honda Canada.

There were others that featured motorsport elements including Porsche which unveiled the new GT3 Cup Challenge car and talked about the new Le Mans Prototype program and what it means for development in consumer cars down the line; Mazda had the all new Skyactiv Diesel TUDOR United Sports Car Challenge Prototype (which raced at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona); Infinity had an (old) F1 Red Bull show car; Subaru had a couple of rally cars and SCION had a couple of street tuner cars (used in solo events). The rest of the manufacturers seemed to be absent from the starting grid.

You might say (and some have), “Why are you surprised.” You will notice that is framed as a comment, not a question, because most of my colleagues here seem to have simply thrown up their arms in surrender. I feel that way sometimes as well – but maybe it’s time for us to name names and hold some twitchy feet to the fire.

Well I am surprised, because if you recall from our recent Daytona reports, there were twenty-two Canadian racers on hand competing in a wide variety of marques – all of these having some sort of representation in Canada. BMW, Nissan, Chevrolet, Ford, Mazda, Chrysler, Honda, Subaru, Porsche and Ferrari all had cars (or powered cars) with Canadian drivers at the wheel in the TUDOR and Continental series. Some of these drivers were even on the podium. Yet ask any executive from a Canadian office about that race (or any race for that matter) or any of the drivers (exclusive of Hinch and Honda) and you are often met with blank stares. When questioned, they are prepared with a litany of excuses for “why not”.

Add to that list (of mostly full time race drivers) two Canadian drivers who are truly international stars in Bruno Spengler and Robert Wickens. Both have won poles and races in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM, German Touring Car Masters) … and Bruno was the 2012 series champion. In fact Spengler has been in the series since 2005 driving for Mercedes until 2011, for whom he never finished worse than fifth in the championship (exclusive of his first season – 16th). In all that time, not once has Mercedes-Benz Canada made any effort to promote this at the auto show, and heaven help you if you wanted to purchase any racing swag. In 2012 Spengler switched to BMW and went on to win the series championship. Again, no mention or recognition of that fact by BMW at the Toronto show – however his championship car was on display at the Montreal Auto Show. As far as we know, that took a bit of personal effort from someone to get done and well, let’s be honest; Quebec companies give a lot more due to their racing heroes than the rest in Canada.

By the way, Spengler finished 3rd in the 2013 championship for BMW and again, nary a mention. In fact all that BMW had in their booth to promote racing was a bobsled … yes, a (expletive) bobsled with BMW logos plastered all over it. They did not even have a model of the DTM car available in their swag cabinet. UGH!

This brings me back to Mercedes-Benz and their rising star, pole winner and race winner Robert Wickens.

You should know that we at Race Canada go to these events, not to look at pretty new (and bloody expensive) cars, but to suss out the motorsport connections. We remember the times as kids, when going to auto shows meant seeing a car that raced on Sunday that dad could buy on Monday. We hoped to see racing drivers and get autographs, maybe get a poster or racing decal, possibly even a model of that driver’s race car. Case in point: Mercedes-Benz and Robert Wickens.

0004cd46On arriving at the Mercedes booth we instinctively looked for any motorsport paraphernalia – especially anything that might have a connection to Wickens, who won two poles and one race for Mercedes-Benz in 2013. Well we saw nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch … well not until our photographer called us over into a dark corner at the back of the exhibit. There we would find, tucked away on the bottom shelf of the swag cabinet, eight 1:48 scale models of the current DTM cars – one of them being Robert Wickens’ #10 Stihl car. Nice. At least they have something.

Fast forward twenty minutes and while standing, listening to yet another talking head drone on about their newest offerings, a familiar voice calls to me from behind. It was the father of a young racing driver I’ve known since the karting days and do not often get the chance to chat with any more, so it was great to see him. The talk obviously turned to racing, the show and of course, and the lack of motorsport presence. We also happened to be standing at the edge of the Mercedes-Benz booth and we talked about Robert as he is a friend to both our families. I mentioned that indeed there was a model of the Wickens/Stihl DTM car available for sale and immediately my friend stated that he was going to buy it – a couple in fact – so we headed over to the sales desk.

The request to purchase that particular model was made, and the “clerk” starts to go through the drawer below, presumably to get one from stock. He does however seem to be searching through empty boxes. My friend points out that he would like this model because, “The driver is a Canadian! He lives near here. In fact, he was at my house last Sunday.” The sales guy nods and says “Oh really” before excusing himself to go ‘behind the curtain’ in search of stock. Moments later he returns, opens the display case and pulls out that one stating “This is the only one we have.”

Wait? What?

So now we are really disappointed that this is the only one to be had. My friend wanted two and I planned to return later to pick up one for my son (who is also friends with Robert). Was this it? Now that this one model had been purchased, would there be another to replace it? It seemed of little consequence anyway as they did have them more or less tucked away a lower shelf – the much larger scale models of much more popular cars like the B200 and the M500 were front and centre. It was really quite sad.

So many missed – and in some cases completely ignored – opportunities. And while the editor is willing to cut Porsche some slack for at least having the GT3 Cup car there, I on the other hand am wondering why David Ostella, the 2013 GT3 Cup Canada Champion was not! He lives just north of the city.

By the way, when questioned about DTM, Mercedes-Benz Canada officials basically said that “it’s not very popular here in Canada and it would be so expensive to get a car here anyway”. We're really not sure if they knew who Robert Wickens is. Same goes for the bobsled bunch over at BMW. Bruno who?

So your mission – and you have no choice but to accept it – if you get to the auto show over the next week, stop by your favorite manufacturer and ask them “Where are the race cars?” If you are at BMW or Mercedes, ask them about Spengler and Wickens. Maybe it’s time we stopped accepting this antipathy among the manufacturers (and the media) towards motor racing here in hockey nation.

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