TEAM PLAYER'S SETS SAIL
The sport of motor racing has always been one of change. From the track to the boardroom, careers and partnerships have come and gone.
Since 1961, there's been one constant and that has been the participation of Imperial Tobacco Co.'s Player's brand, the Canadian cigarette in a distinctive blue package. Player's has sponsored races and driversstarting with the Player's 200 at Mosport near Bowmanville, Ontario, the first international racing event held in Canada.
Almost single-handed, Player's has fostered Canadian motorsports since that time, introducing decades of fans to Canadian heroes like Gilles Villeneuve, Bill Brack, Claude Bourbonnais, Jacques Villeneuve, David Empringham, Patrick Carpentier, Andrew Bordin, Greg Moore, Lee Bentham, David Rutledge, Bertrand Godin, Alex Tagliani and, this year for the first time, Paul Tracy.
These Canadians have made their marks all over the globe, wearing the familiar blue and white of Team Player's. At home, they've competed in events from Trois Rivieres to Westwood that were sponsored by Player's. A cadre of Canada's drivers has come through the ranks with the backingwhether partial or fullof the tobacco giant.
This year that will end. Canadian law stipulates that Team Player's will disband its motorsports marketing effective October 1st, a month and a day before this year's Champ Car World Series season is completed.
September 30th will cap 43 years of dedication to racing that rivals that of puffable patrons Winston and Marlboro in scope. But have those two red brands ever pursued national pride the way Player's has? I don't think so.
Player's has a Drivers Development Program since 1991 that brought sixteen Canadians up through the ranks to the top of their field. They've done it for national pride in a country thatthanks in part to Player'sloves its racing.
In the 2003 CART season, Tracy and Carpentier are Team Player's lead drivers, with Alex Tagliani having a partially funded Player's program at Rocketsports Racing. Midway in the campaign the results are good. Tracy leads the standings and Carpentier lies fourth. Tagliani, with a newly formed squad in 2003, has ninth place points.
Paul Tracy's victory in the Molson Indy Toronto held last weekend was a point of national pride and came ten years after his first hometown win. He's called the "Thrill from West Hill" (the Toronto suburb where Paul grew up) for his exciting driving style, something the outspoken Tracy has never lost, even as he's developed a fine sense for the public relations side of the sport, becoming a spokesman (and nuisance, on occasion).
The Vanderbilt Cup is Tracy's to win or lose and it is up to him to play the role of hero for Team Player's this year. Armed with people he trusts, like CART's own Obi Wan Kenobi Tony Cicale, with engineers Michael Cannon and Todd Malloy. Tracy, Carpentier and company have even more: the backing of Bob Bexon, the president and CEO of Imperial Tobacco and a race fan from his youth.
The end of this collaboration is something that makes Bexon sad. You can see his lively blue eyes droop at the thought of leaving racing, but there's nothing he can do about it at this time. "It's the law. It's moot whether I think it's fair."
Until they're forced to scrape the blue paint from the two Lolas campaigned by Player's/Forsythe Racing in the 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, Bexon, co-owner Gerald Forsythe and the squad led by Neil Micklewright are doing everything in their power to see one of their drivers holding that big silver chalice at Fontana by the close of business November 2nd.
Bexon and 12 of his 16 drivers announced the departure of Team Player's the Thursday prior to the Molson Indy Toronto. A video montage annotating the 42 years of history that Imperial Tobacco has brought to Canadian motorsports was celebratory. Drivers were introduced. Comments were made. Later, I'm sure toasts were lifted.
"Today is quite sad," Tagliani admitted. He joined the Drivers Development Program in 1996, progressed through Toyota Atlantic to his current job driving Champ Car. "Everyone wanted to be part of this program," Carpentier said and then joked, "It feels like I've been with Player's since 1961!" Tracy called this particular Thursday a "difficult day for everybody; a difficult day for Canadian motorsports."
"There is still history to be written," Bexon declared. Working to "win another championship for Canada" is the final job for Team Player's. The most recent titles came from Jacques Villeneuve, first at the Indianapolis 500 and in Champ Car in 1995, then Formula One with Williams in 1997.
"It is with sadness, yet also with considerable pride that we make this announcement," Bexon continued. "And it's pretentious to think that if we're not involved the world comes to an end. If, after October 1st (when there will be three races remaining), we have to race 'light', we will. And I would rather stay in racing, if I had the choice," he sighed. "I, personally, will miss this very much."
As 50-50 co-owners of the team, Bexon and Imperial Tobacco are searching for another Canadian firm to take up the sponsorship slack. Thus far, they've not found a suitable partner. "Our nine years working with Jerry Forsythe have been great. He's a man of integrity and spares no effort to succeed. Our operation was formed on a handshake; that's the kind of person he is." And the type of person Bob Bexon is, as well.
"It's taken me a long time to get to this team," Tracy said. "The timing is right now and it was worth the wait. I'm having more fun than in any other season (this is his 13th year driving Champ cars) and my goal is to deliver the Championship to Team Player's at the end of the year. I've got my fingers crossed I can get the job done."
One hopes Paul won't be driving with his fingers crossed, and if he was this weekend, that's bad news for his competitors who, without benefit of caution periods fell upwards of 30 seconds in arrears to this guy, who's really on a tear.
As governments continue to curtail the abilities of tobacco firms to market their products, they also curtail the abilities of young athletes to gain success in their chosen fields. Bexon and Co. can always find ways to spend their marketing millions. Can Canadian drivers find a way to make their futures secure without them?