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Selling a piece of Canadian Racing History

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On Sept. 22, 1968, I went to the second F1 Grand Prix du Canada with two friends, Clive Copeland and John Vandersleen. It was held at Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Saint-Jovite, a village in the Quebec Laurentians that is now part of the City of Mont-Tremblant. The scene was out of this world.

We stood way up on the side of a hill overlooking corners 13 and 14 of the racing circuit and we could see all the way over to the grid straight, where the control tower was located. It was not hard to make our way down and over to the hairpin – corner 14 – where you could see the drivers of the day up close as their cars approached the hard right-hand turn.

Let me say this right now: except for, perhaps, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, which is the site of the Belgian Grand Prix, there is not a more breathtaking setting for a racetrack anywhere in the world. On that day in September back in 1968, the autumn colours were close to peaking, there was only a hint of wind and the blue sky over the ski hills was crisp and sharp.

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The prime minister, the first Trudeau, arrived on an armed forces helicopter that landed on the track between corner 15 and the grid straight. It was pre-Margaret, but he had a woman on his arm just the same. It was all so terribly romantic. He dropped the flag to start the race and the 22 cars all took off as one. That was the icing on the cake.

Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant came about because, in the words of John Ross, organizer of the first Can-Am race there in 1966, Quebec racers were envious of Ontario racers and their spanking new racetrack called Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park). If Ontario could have a circuit capable of holding big international events, then so should Quebec, went the thinking, and so a meeting was convened in late 1962 to begin discussions.

Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant

A driving force was Leo Samson, a Saint-Jovite hotel owner, who had attended races at Mosport and Watkins Glen International, located in New York State. He liked the money he made in winter when skiers stayed at his inn; he though a racetrack would attract a whole lot of other people and their loot in summer. This is skipping ahead with the story, but it turned out he was right: between the ski hills and the car races, the Saint-Jovite and Mont-Tremblant area turned out to be a licence to print money 12 months a year instead of just six.

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Ross de St. Croix of Brantford, Ont., lived in Montreal at the time. A member of the Montreal MG Car Club, he won the Canadian Driver’s Championship in 1967, the year of the Canada’s centennial. But years earlier, he found himself a member of the Circuit Mont-Tremblant design committee, which included the legendary sports car and formula car constructor and racer, Bruce McLaren. As you can imagine, he was very interested when news about the circuit came out in recent weeks.

In short, it’s up for sale. Owner Lawrence Stroll, father of Formula One driver Lance Stroll and owner of the Aston Martin F1 team, is seeking bids on the 304-acre property. It’s being listed as a racetrack with “long-term development potential” in the most “coveted tourist area in Quebec.”

The conventional thinking is that it will become a housing development because there are now many people in Saint-Jovite and area who hate the circuit. They go to court with regularity to win noise injunctions and the like.

It’s assumed that a group of millionaires in the area will band together and buy it for something in the neighbourhood of $22 million. First, that figure is a rumour. Second, it’s low. It is why Stroll has solicited bids without putting a price on the place: he can turn down approaches from anyone he thinks will do damage to what is currently a motorsport facility.

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And that’s the key: it’s for sale as a racetrack. Years from now, when nobody cares about car racing any more, which is the trend, the new owner, or owners, can then start building houses, hence the phrase “long-term” development proposal.

Racing people who fear the worst are ignoring something that’s critical, said de St. Croix. Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant has been in business, on and off, for nearly 60 years and there are people in the village who like it there. “And we haven’t heard from the time-share people, or the condo owners, who could be saying, ‘Wait a minute! Where are we going to get our payoff, slim as it might be, in the summertime (when they rent out their properties to racers and fans)?’” he said. “We also have to give some thought to why it’s being sold. I think Lawrence Stroll is a businessman who’s making a business decision. So,  track or development? I’d say it’s 50-50.”

Norris McDonald is a retired Star editor who continues to write for Wheels under contract. He reviews the weekend’s auto racing each Monday at wheels.ca 

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