Between 500 and 1,000 people representing the automobile industry and the racing community were in attendance at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Wednesday night to view more than 40 sports and racing cars either designed, modified or built by the legendary Carroll Shelby.
The 87-year-old Shelby, a retired racing driver but still-active automotive designer, flew up from California for the party – called the Carroll Shelby Gala Reception – and to be inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in a special ceremony.
The exhibit of Shelby cars will be the feature attraction at this year’s Canadian International AutoShow, which opens to the public on Friday. Money raised from the price of admission as well as an auction conducted during the Wednesday night "do" was to be divided between one of Shelby’s charities and the Canadian Motorsports Heritage Foundation, which oversees the hall of fame.
Among the guests was Car & Driver magazine’s long-time editor David E. Davis, who emceed much of the evening’s activities; Dr. Hugh Scully, former head of the Canadian Medical Association who founded the Ontario Race Physicians safety team (among many other accomplishments in a long and distinguished career); James F. O’Donnell, former chairman of MacKenzie Financial Corp., which launched and supported the careers of Canadian driving stars Ludwig Heimrath Jr., Ron Fellows and Scott Goodyear; St. Catharines cardiologist Emilio Raimondo, who’s son Giancarlo is leaving on Saturday for Italy where he will race in the 2010 Italian Formula 3 series; Jeremy Hinchcliffe of Oakville, whose son James is a Firestone Indy Lights driver; retired Canadian racer John Graham, who brought glory to the land by winning the LMP 675 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2000 with Scott Maxwell and the late Greg Wilkins; Ross de St. Croix, who won the Canadian Driving Championship in 1967 as his personal Centennial project; Stratford auto dealer John Waldy, and Wheels writer Nika Rolczewski and her husband, Mike Louli.
Helping with the induction of Shelby into the Hall of Fame were president and chairman Tom Ryley, retired Canadian racing champion Eppie Wietzes, ASN Canada FIA vice-president of competition Paul Cooke, Wheels columnist Jim Kenzie, and Davis.
Shelby thanked everyone for attending and remarked that he was enjoying his stay in Toronto despite it having "snowed all night." He reminded his audience that he’d left "the sunshine and 80-degree temperatures" of southern California to make the trip.
He was chauffeured around the exhibit in a golf cart by long-time friend and associate Bob Bondurant, who’s Arizona racing school is world-famous. Bondurant, of course, was no slouch in a cockpit himself, having raced in Formula One in the 1960s. He won at Le Mans (in a Shelby team car) before a serious accident in a Can-Am Series sports car race ended his career.
There was, of course, news at the event. And observations about the state of the sport.
For instance, Roger Peart, president of ASN Canada FIA, told me that in an effort to improve officiating at Formula One events going forward, the FIA has requested the help of retired F1 drivers.
"One of the criticisms of the steward system (stewards interpret and enforce the rules at F1 Grands Prix) is that none of them have ever driven a Formula One car," said Peart, who served as an FIA steward for years and was involved in several controversial decisions and rulings himself.
"So the FIA has asked four or five retired Formula One drivers to take turns officiating at F1 events. In addition, rather than having a number of different people serving as stewards, the FIA is appointing eight permanent stewards and two of those eight will be present at every Grand Prix."
Peart said the host country of every GP will appoint a steward and the FIA will send an "ambassador" to every race to be a referee.
It sounds complicated but it’s not. The officiating team at each Grand Prix, then, will be made up of one retired F1 driver, the "national steward," two FIA stewards and an FIA ambassador.
This has got to be an improvement on the old system.
Peart – who noted he was feeling a little jet-lagged, having been on a plane from Paris for much of the day Wednesday – added that he's been asked to serve as FIA ambassador at the Spanish Grand Prix.
"And, of course, I’ll be the national steward at Montreal," when the Grand Prix of Canada is held in June.
I asked, but Peart said he didn't know who was being considered among the many retired F1 drivers.
I would suggest that Sir Jackie Stewart, who's been very critical of the steward system in the past, might be a candidate. Niki Lauda is at all the races and is always good for a quote about the state of the sport. Jacques Lafitte is frequently in attendance, at least at Montreal. So there is a good crop to choose from.
Bondurant, meantime, had some interesting things to say about the recent departure of Tony George from the Indianapolis racing scene.
"I think it’s a good thing," he said of George’s resignation as CEO of the Indianapolis Speedway and the Indy Racing League.
"It will be able to get back to the way people want to see Indy cars and the Speedway. I’ve known Tony George for a long time and he’s always treated me nice but when he decided to change everything (when he started the IRL in competition with the established CART series), that affected the racing and all the sponsors and it tore it apart. So with him gone, Indy cars can get back to the way they were and I think that will go well."
Bondurant also said he thinks NASCAR star Kyle Busch is good enough to drive in Formula One but that he doesn’t want to.
"He (Busch) could do it," the 76-year-old Bondurant said, "particularly now that we're getting our own team (USF1). But the NASCAR guys all want to stay here (in the U.S.), to race here. I’ve trained 80 per cent of the NASCAR drivers (to road-race), all the top drivers, and they’re very good but they look inward while people of my generation looked outward.
"I wanted to go to Europe, to beat the world’s best. I mean, if you won over there you got the wreath and they played the national anthem and it made you feel wonderful. That was really something. They (NASCAR drivers) don’t seem to want to do that.
"By the way, on Valentine’s Day (next Sunday), I’ll have been in business (teaching people to race-drive) for 42 years. I still go to school every day and I take people out for hot laps. That keeps me sharp mentally and physically and I love it."
Carroll Shelby, on his beginnings as a creator of wonderful - and different - racing machines by jamming a big Detroit engine into a little sports car: "We were just a bunch of hot-rodders; there wasn’t an engineer in the bunch."
Jeremy Hinchcliffe, on the struggle to advance in auto racing: "It’s not good enough to win races anymore; you have to have $3 million. If you finish in the top ten and can deal with the media, it’s still not enough. If you want to go to Indy cars, you need $3 million."
Eppie Wietzes, who’s a Toyota dealer: "It’ll come back (sales). I think it will be better than ever. In fact, this might have been a good thing."
Paul Cooke, on Danica Patrick: "She’s the 2010 version of Paul Newman. When he started, there were people who questioned his talent. He said, ‘Uh-huh, just watch me.’" He turned out to be pretty good, don’t you think?"