The race to see who will be the first to build an auto racing facility in the Greater Niagara area shifts into high gear Wednesday when Toronto entrepreneur Lee Abrahamson formally requests a change to the Official Plan that will allow him to develop a property at the intersection of Sodom Rd. and the Queen Elizabeth Way in Niagara Falls.
In so doing, a second proposed race track – the Niagara Falls World of Motorsport, which has been rumoured for several years – will become reality.
News media, including the Star, have reported previously on a proposal to build the Canadian Motor Speedway, a one-mile oval and a 2.5-mile road course near the QEW in Fort Erie that would have seating for 65,000 people and cost in the neighbourhood of $200 million.
A formal announcement of that project a little more than a year ago identified the Kuwaiti company Bayt Al Mal Investments as the source of funding. The project, spearheaded by Niagara Falls businessman Jay Mason (his son Jesse, a racing driver of note, is also involved in the business), is being guided by Jim Thibert, who’s general manager of the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corp.
When I talked to Jay Mason about his idea several years ago, he suggested the proposed Fort Erie speedway could be up and running by 2009. That hasn’t happened, but projects of this size are often difficult to get off the ground.
To keep the interest alive, a new Canadian Motor Speedway Webletter was emailed in recent days spelling out the plans for the racing circuits, a research and development project involving McMaster University and retail and other commercial operations that would be built in the immediate vicinity of the race track.
All very impressive.
Now, for the last couple of years, there has also been scuttlebutt about a second project in the area, closer to Niagara Falls. Nothing official, of course, but speculation has been out there all the same.
Wednesday, the second proposed track will officially become public when Abrahamson formally requests the Official Plan change that, if approved, will allow him to go ahead with plans for the Niagara Falls World of Motorsport, which would be within the city limits of what’s still nicknamed the Honeymoon Capital of the World.
"It’s a perfect location," Abrahamson told me during a quick phone call Tuesday night.
"It’s 10 minutes from Buffalo-Fort Erie by car and seven minutes from the Falls, where there are 16,000 hotel rooms. If mom and the daughters don’t like car racing, they can see the sights and go shopping while dad and the sons go watch the races. Then they can all be back together again in time for dinner. Everybody will be happy."
Abrahamson’s plans are not as grandiose as the Fort Erie project and he says he’ll build his facility – projected to cost a total of $20 million – in three stages.
"We plan to build a 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometre) road course that will incorporate a 4,125-foot runway (already on the property), which will double as a drag strip," he said.
"The first phase will be the circuit – the berms and ponds and everything else. The second phase will be industrial and commercial development and the third phase will be Club Autodrome, which will be a country club for car enthusiasts."
Abrahamson, who I’ve known for years, is a talker. So I let him talk.
"What we’re eventually looking at - long term, I might add - is eight international-style racing weekends a year. We’ve worked very closely with the noise engineers on this project and we’ve developed a traffic plan to handle the anticipated crowds. We want to make this facility the crown jewel of Canadian motorsport.
" The big attraction – other than the motor sport, of course – is Niagara Falls, with all its attractions and facilities. It is an hour and a half drive from Toronto. Within a two-hour drive there are eight million people and within an eight-hour drive there are 150 million people. Those are the facts. I’m not saying they are all fans, but they are there.
"We will not allow any overnight camping. We want people to stay at the hotels or to park their motorhomes at campgrounds in and around the city and to take in all that the Falls has to offer. It will be just like in Montreal: you come and then leave and come again the next day."
I asked him about the major difference between the two projects: the cost.
"Building a Taj Mahal-type place, with a hotel, isn’t going to do anybody any good," he said. "I want to drive traffic to Niagara Falls because the happier the hotel operators and merchants are, the happier I’ll be.
"And you can get a return on an investment of $20 million. How do you get a return on $200 million? It’s impossible. It’s like dealing with Bernie and F1. How do you make any money? He makes the money, but nobody else does."
Abrahamson was vague about when he planned to break ground.
"One step at a time," he said. "I need a change to the Official Plan so that the location can be zoned for this project. We’ll go from there."
He was also vague about product – as in, what racing attractions he plans to bring to his new facility.
The Fort Erie project learned that lesson the hard way. After the official announcement of that project a year ago, media reports suggested NASCAR races would be among the attractions offered.
That resulted in a curt statement issued by NASCAR (which was even sent to governments identified as being interested in the project), to the effect that the sanctioning body had no plans to be involved with the new speedway, that it did not intend to add any more races to the schedules of its three series (with the possible exception of New York City for a Sprint Cup race) and that it was NASCAR’s belief that Fort Erie race fans were already well served by NASCAR-affiliated speedways in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Jackson, Mich.
No wonder Abrahamson’s playing his cards close to his vest.