Wednesday, November 2, 2016


I LOST MY NASCAR VIRGINITY IN JUST ABOUT THE BIGGEST WAY POSSIBLE. I have always wanted to see a NASCAR race, and while a few events on the Sprint Cup calendar are within driving distance of Toronto, I knew that thanks to liquor laws in most of Canada, I'd hold my breath forever if I wanted to see a race on this side of the border.

I'd furtively plotted out potential NASCAR day trips to Michigan or Watkins Glen, or a pilgrimage to Indianapolis, but at the end of this spring my wildest dreams were surpassed when a travel gig started coming together that would put me in the infield at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway for a whole race weekend.

The first thing that struck me about Talladega was the scale, with the infield seeming to stretch out forever, with paddocks and garages, support buildings, a whole road course and several RV campgrounds contained within the tri-oval. After the scale, it's the precision and organization that blew my mind, especially when I came across the parking lot for the transporters, with its long line of identical blue Peterbilts.

I was given a pass that was virtually all access, so I could wander the place at will, from the hardcore partiers on Talladega Boulevard to Pit Road. The U.S. elections were halfway throug their final bitter month when I arrived, and it wasn't surprising that NASCAR isn't exactly a hotbed of Hillary supporters.

My biggest thrill was hearing that Bobby and Donnie Allison were the honorary grand marshall and starter of the race. These were, of course, the men that tussled with Cale Yarborough at the end of the legendary 1979 Daytona 500 that was probably the genesis of NASCAR's wild explosion in popularity, so I had to hurry away fromthe driver's meeting before the race on Sunday to shoot them signing books, hats, t-shirts and die-cast cars for fans.

The most striking moment was the calm before the big race, where fans, crew, drivers and their families all mingled on Pit Road, and where you can see something like a willowy driver's wife in a flowing dress playing with her son on the grass between the pits and the start/finish straight.

Wheel and jack men stretched and did calisthenics while the giants who hefted the fuel bowsers basked like mighty beasts before a stampede. Drivers looked as tense as you'd expect them too, conferring with crew chiefs and engineers in little pockets of logo-covered uniforms.

The big revelation was how hard it is to shoot a NASCAR race. Towers for photographers are helpfully provided near the corners of the track, but photo holes were difficult to find, and the holy grail shot I wanted - a pack of cars hugging the steep banking, compressed into one tight composition by a telephoto lens - seemed impossible to shoot. It was easy to understand when I studied the fencing alongside the track, and realized how heavy these cars are, and the force at which they'd hit the walls in a big crash. I felt spoiled by shooting street courses, though.

The race was completely different in the stands, where the cars roared past on the long front straight just feet away from the crowd. My backup shot - a decent shot of a pit stop - was much easier to get, especially when a couple of cars had wrecked and their crews quickly packed up and left their pit boxes empty for anyone with a hot pass to stand in for the rest of the race.

Joey Logano ended up winning the race, which almost ended under a safety car, and was criticized by some grumbling about the "take it easy" strategy of the Joe Gibbs team, who ran in a little pack just behind the rest of the cars for most of the day. It was frankly almost impossible to follow as I trekked from the infield to the stands and back to the pits under the bright sun all afternoon, but despite the blur of sensations, I can say that I popped my NASCAR cherry in style.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Behind the scenes at the Toronto Honda Indy 2016

THE HONDA INDY TOOK OVER THE EXHIBITION GROUNDS and Lakeshore Road again last weekend, with a full card of support races that included the return of NASCAR to Toronto after five years. Australia’s Will Power was the winner at the end of the weekend, while last year’s winner, Josef Newgarden, crashed on lap 58, right in front of where I was taking pictures.

It only looks like a race weekend like the Honda Indy is about the cars, but there are hundreds of people working flat out behind the wheel, in the paddocks and in the pits. I talked to eight of them, asking them about everything from the changes made to the track this year to how women are making their way into motorsport to the future of racing beyond the internal combustion engine and why NASCAR isn’t bigger in Canada.

Markham-born Daniel Morad was the only driver who competed in two different series during the Honda Indy weekend, racing in the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup series and accepting a last minute invitation to fill a seat in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. Morad finished seventh in the NASCAR stock car and came first in the Porsche on Saturday and second on Sunday.

The team owner gave me a ring on Friday morning - I was still in bed at that point - and he said go get your medical forms taken care of from NASCAR. Luckily I have a doctor who can take care of that really quickly. I probably set record time going to the doctor's offices and back to make it in the car in time."

"I literally went from the doctor's office to my race seat and practice, my first time ever in a NASCAR. I'm really excited to race in this series - rubbin's racing they say, and you're allowed to do it, whereas in the Porsche you're supposed to keep it nice and pristine. It's beautiful German engineering and the car is fantastic to drive. Two contrasting types of cars - one's trying to murder you out there and the other drives like a dream."

Jean-Francois Dumoulin (left) and his brother Louis-Philippe Dumoulin (right) are from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec and compete against each other in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. They talked about the changes to the Toronto track and what’s needed to make NASCAR bigger in Canada. Louis-Philippe finished fourth and Jean-Francois finished tenth at the end of Saturday’s race.

L.P. Dumoulin: “It's a great circuit - fast corners, slow corners, you're right between walls. We're used to it because we're from another street circuit, so it's a great place. They did some changes this year. I really liked the older configuration. This one is alright - we'll so how it goes during the race. Visually there's a lot of distractions - lights and posts and fences and you really have to pick your reference points quickly."

J.F. Dumoulin: “I think the social media is a big thing now. NASCAR needs to be stronger on that and on live TV. Because we have TV but it's hard to see it because it's a week after - when it's happening people are more willing to watch it."

Sara Price was the first woman to drive in the Stadium Super Trucks series, a big fan favorite in Toronto since it first raced here in 2013. Price, a 23-year-old motocross racer from California, led for the first three laps of Sunday’s race and ended up finishing ninth when her brakes began to fail.

I think in today's society a lot of women are coming up and a lot of girls are getting empowered and having their own voice. Obviously it takes a strong, independent girl to stick around the guys, and a lot of guys are looking at the women and giving them a lot of respect because they're looking at them as just another racer in another colour, not just a female. I think that's awesome and a lot of women should get into it because when you're in it it's amazing."

Scarborough-raised Neil Campbell is a mechanic working for Andretti Motorsports, with 25 years of experience in the business. He’s part of Marco Andretti’s Indycar crew; Andretti finished tenth.

“Those Formula E electric cars, they're going to be the future. In ten years you're going to see everything in that formula, and you can see how amazing that racing is, and I think we're heading that way. Especially with Andretti being part of Formula E in the next few years you're going to see the Indycars going that way as well, it just depends on the costs - one the costs go down in our development with Formula E, when we get a hang on that, we'll start doing that on IndyCar as well."

Alexander Rossi is in his rookie season in Indycar, but he’s a veteran of several international racing series, including Formula 1, where he’s still a reserve driver for Manor Racing. He was the winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500 after starting eleventh, the first rookie to win the race since 2001.

“I think initially there was a lot of shock related to it, because I couldn't fully process it. And then as the weeks went on it was very difficult to come to the realization that you've won because we had Detroit after that and Texas right after that. So it took about a month for it to settle in, and it was a very special thing for me to be an American who was able to win the 100th running and to be able to do it for Honda. After what was such a difficult year last year, it was such a tremendous privilege and honour."

Kate Gundlach is an assistant race engineer for Chip Ganassi Racing, where she works on the timing stand in pit lane on driver Charlie Kimball’s team. She grew up around her father’s vintage motorcycle racing team and has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Toronto is extremely difficult, considering it's a street circuit and there's a lot that's not under our control - there are bumps, pavement changes, weather, pedestrian traffic that makes it unpredictable. It's hard to manage, and when you watch these cars go around the track in videos there's at least one tire off the ground at all times. It's tough for them to be within half a second of each other across the whole field - it's pretty impressive.”

Simon Pagenaud was the points leader going into the Honda Indy weekend in Toronto, and despite only finishing ninth, he retained his lead of 47 points over Will Power. He raced at Le Mans before joining Indycar in 2011 and is known for his obsession with the technical side of racing.

“The car is good. We're going to make some slight adjustments. It's been a good weekend. We have a new layout here that I enjoy, personally. People always complain about changes I guess, but I'm the opposite way. I like changes, I think it makes it more challenging, and it shows the driver's skills more to the fans. When the fans come to the racetrack they want to see a car sliding, they want to see a narrow track, they want to see action, and I think we're providing that with this new layout and I'm excited about it."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Colville's cars

I HAVE BEEN A BIG FAN OF ALEX COLVILLE for some years now. It might be that, as a photographer, I find it easier to access his very realistic (but hardly "photo-realistic") aesthetic than less figurative painters. It might be that he's among the most Canadian of painters, and I've finally gotten tired of rebelling against intrinsically Canadian art. But when I went to see a retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario the other day, it occurred to me that there might be another reason - one that I've overlooked until now.

The man really loved cars.

The painting above is called "Artist with Car" - a self-portrait, I presume, of Colville with a late-model BMW-era Mini, in front of the sort of monstrous snow drift that any Canadian will recognize with a shiver in their heart. In the notes posted on the wall of the exhibition, a curator noted that Colville did love his cars, priding himself in his make-and-model "car-spotting" as a boy, and taking a particular relish in "German performance" when, as a successful artist, he could spend some money on a vehicle.

I'm not exactly sure how this theoretically British hatchback designed by Germans fits that bill, but I'll just put it down to an older driver settling for a more sensible (but not inexpensive) car out of prudence. I'll just have to hope that Colville had a history of well-sorted BMW 2002s and Mercedes Benz 280s in his past.

Here's another later painting. German engineering, to be sure.

I can only hope the Smart Car was a rental.

Of course, any man who really loves cars also loves racing, so it gladdened my heart to see this portrait of a race car driver from the "gentleman's bloodsport" era of motorsport, behind the massive steering wheel of a front-engined grand prix car, unencumbered by seat belts or a helmet that offers anything but notional protection.

It has to be noted that Colville took great care to get the details of his cars right - no shapeless wheeled blobs with vaguely sketched-in bumpers and headlights here, but anatomically correct vehicles, like this old VW bug, car of choice for the sort of young woman who'd end up leaning against the passenger side of the car at a rest stop on some wearying cross-country road trip with her boyfriend. Or at least that's the backstory I can't help but invest in this painting - a scene that looks impeccably (and depressingly) '70s to my eyes.

Here's another Bug - the sleeker but somehow less soulful New Bug, with its arched windows and unsentimentally retro lines, contrasted against the wheeled fortress of a Brinks van in the in the background. I'll assume that's his wife behind the wheel - his long-suffering model - and one of his family's many dogs in the back, being impassively chauffeured into town. Once again - German engineering, but of a more sensible, sedate variety.

We're back to the '70s again - or perhaps the early '80s; the transition was hard to define in some places - with this painting of a small town war memorial under gray winter skies, where the only splash of colour is provided by a Renault 5, sold over here as the cloyingly cute Le Car. A French car in a Canadian town, many miles and years away from the French fields where Canadians died. A moment to pause and reflect, to be sure.

What I love about Colville is these glimpses, like the one above - the woman (young? older? - it's hard to tell) looking a bit overdressed in her fur and heels next to the Western Star truck at night, posing for the camera of a shadowy man dressed for work. If there's menace or seediness in the scene, we have to admit after examining our reaction that it's probably mostly in our minds.

(As a sidenote, the Western Star is tangentially a piece of German engineering as well, as the company is now a division of Daimler.)

Finally there's another self-portrait of artist as an older man - Colville and his wife, in "Kiss with Honda." It looks like a fourth-generation Civic - another very sensible car, especially if you're dealing with snow and rural roads. With its missing hubcaps and bare steelies, it would be the second car - the one you take in to pick up shopping or the mail on days when the skies look unfriendly.

It was painted in 1989, apparently, and even though Colville died just last year, it feels elegaic. It's twilight and the man is setting off on a journey with his lights on, heading into the dark, the car a very understated funeral bier. The kiss from his life's companion feels like a more than perfunctory goodbye - but maybe that's just me reading my own preoccupations into it. You're supposed to do that with Colville's paintings, I think.

But part of me just wishes it wasn't a Civic. A Mercedes SL, or an S-class. That would be the way to go. But that wouldn't be very Canadian.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sporty little number

It's gotten more press than almost any other new car in the last two years, but it took a while for me to actually see a Scion FR-S in the wild. After glimpsing a couple in traffic, I finally found one parked just down the block from my kids' school earlier this year. I probably can't add much more to what's been said about the FR-S/Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 that hasn't been said by a hundred other auto journalists except to say that, in person, it's supremely covetable.

If I were a young man with sterling credit and a secure parking space I'd buy one in a second. When I become an old fart with an empty nest and no need to fill a trunk with Costco shopping to feed four for a month I'll probably want one more than a pair of knees that work. I wonder what this baby will be worth on the used market in about ten or fifteen years?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Toronto Indy 2013: Day 3, Race 2

It was Sunday morning and I needed to get to mass, but as I was covering the Indy races all weekend, it looked like there wouldn't be time. Luckily, I'd noticed signs all over the media centre advertising morning chapel and a Catholic service courtesy the Indycar Ministry, to be held in the drivers' centre in the BMO Field building on the other end of the track.

A couple of days previous I was in the area, just by turn 5, so I decided to check out the building. I was stopped by a security guard and told that my media pass wouldn't get me in. I told her about the signs, and wondered why they'd advertise mass to the media if we couldn't attend. Back at the media centre, I told the head of the press room about it, and he insisted that I was OK to get into mass - why else would the signs be up here? He said he'd talk to someone about it.

So of course on Sunday morning I arrived at the security desk at the driver's centre to be told by the same security guard that she hadn't heard a thing, and that I couldn't go to mass with a media pass. I insisted that this had all been straightened out, and that all she needed to do was talk to her bosses. Radios were picked up and phones dialed and a few minutes later I was told that, yes, I was clear to go in and attend mass, which turned out to be celebrated by an Oratorian up from Indiana.

I suppose I could have been angry about the levels of dysfunctional bureaucracy clearly at work (or not at work) here, but what struck me was how unique my queries about getting to mass seemed to be, which leads me to believe that I might have been the first member of the godless media to ask about going to Indy mass in a long time. Take from that what you will.

During mass, the priest asked us to pray for Ryan Briscoe, whose injury the day before had taken him out of today's race. Back at the press centre I learned that Carlos Munoz, a promising young driver currently leading the points in Indy Lights, had been asked by Panther Racing to take Briscoe's place in their National Guard car. There was a press conference with Munoz just after lunch, where he revealed that he'd gotten the call at 7pm the night before, and that his flight out of Toronto had been booked for 6am the next day.

"I didn't sleep much," Munoz told us. "I went at 8 o'clock to try the seat. I'm using Ryan's seat so I'm not a hundred per cent comfortable but anyway it's just for the race. It's a great opportunity."

It was the race equivalent of the star breaking their leg tripping over a set backstage and the understudy being given their big break. Only in this case it wasn't an understudy, but someone doing an off-Broadway show down the street, pulled aside in the wings and told to head right to a wardrobe fitting as soon as they were done.

"Panther Racing isn't expecting too much from me," Munoz said. "My goal is not to make any mistakes. Yesterday there was a lot of crashes - I saw the race, so I have to keep out of trouble and get quicker and quicker with each lap and not to make any mistakes on the pit stops and to finish the race."

I finally managed to watch the Stadium Super Truck race from a spot on the pit island, where I got a good view of just how NASCAR driver Robby Gordon is going to get rich. It was just a demonstration race - these things are supposed to be run inside on dirt, so even with the huge tires and massive suspension travel on these race trucks, drivers and their rides were getting pretty banged up.

The crowd loved it, however, especially as they watched the trucks corner on three and even two wheels, and then get massive air as they traveled over the ramps bracketing the beginning of start/finish straight. It was Monster Truck for people who've read a book, and while I enjoyed it immensely, I'm sure I lost fifteen IQ points by the time it was done.

"Indycar racing isn't Formula 1," Graham Rahal told me the day before. "It isn't about the standing starts, and I'm not sure that we need 'em. Tradition in this sport goes back a hundred years and it's never been that way once for a reason." Nevertheless, Indycar officials decided that they'd give standing starts another shot on Sunday and, unbelievably, it went off without a hitch.

Frankly I liked the standing starts. While F1 seems to spelunk its way up its own posterior with tire issues and pit stop strategies and corporate shenanigans of the Bernie variety, Indycar soldiers on, beset by naysayers (most of whom are still mourning ChampCar and CART) but still the only place you can see open wheel race cars drive on street tracks, road courses and ovals, and even run the most iconic motor race in the world once a year. Throw in standing starts and you have probably the most flexible racing series in the world. Decide between rolling and standing with a coin toss on pit lane and the showmanship is amplified.

Sunday was brutally hot, but the racing seemed to be sharper even as the track rubbered in and bits of shredded tire littered the edge of the racing line. My feet were blistered from the previous two days, so I stuck to the inside of the track, scurrying for shade whenever I felt lightheaded from the sun and finishing off litres of water. I can't imagine what it must have been like in the cars, though.

I know I said it before, but the movie had better be fucking awesome.

The weekend got worse for Graham Rahal's team when James Jakes went into the wall at turn five with twenty laps to go - the same wall he hit during qualifying. Then Ed Carpenter lost control and hit the same barriers by turn five; I was a few yards away (with my back turned, of course) when it happened, and caught him getting out of his car, unhurt.

Scott Dixon had a much better day, winning both Toronto races, his third in a row, and getting a $100,000 cheque for being the first driver to take a whole two-race weekend. Castroneves and Bourdais came third and second, no one dropped their trophy, and Dixon's daughters ended up getting most of the attention from the cameras as they wandered Winner's Circle in matching yellow sun dresses, playing with Firestone's Firehawk mascot and making off with Bullseye, the stuffed toy Target mascot.

Two days later, I can still barely walk. For a more concise summary of the weekend, here's my blogTO post.