It’s the black-and-white picture, right below this paragraph. Len (he’s the good-looking guy in the middle) is seen with the late, great Mark Donohue, and they would likely have been at Labatt's to promote the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix (in which Donohue finished third).
For many years after he graduated from Ryerson University, Len was an automotive reporter and writer, motor racing publicist and motorsport columnist for, among other publications, the Toronto Star. He was amazingly talented, incredibly knowledgeable, extremely well-connected and simply marvelous company.
He was also a tad irresponsible – but nobody cared because all the good things outweighed the little bit of bad.
I’m thinking of Len today, nearly six years after his death in February, 2006, because tonight at Ryerson, I will be one of the presenters of three Len Coates Memorial bursaries that have been awarded to journalism students there every year since 2007. The bursaries are funded by Rod and Sandy Campbell of Los Angeles (Rod’s in the second photo accompanying this story, down at the bottom; he’s the good-looking guy on the right, with Canadian ex-Formula One team owner Walter Wolf and his son Max at a Grand Prix in Europe a few years ago).
Len and Rod were great pals, going back to the 1960s when Rod hired Len to write for the Toronto-based Canada Track & Traffic magazine. Later, when Rod started Campbell & Co. in Detroit to handle motorsports PR for the Ford Motor Co., he hired both Len and his brother, Bert Coates.
They were so close that Rod was one of the first people Len called after finding out the cancer that would eventually kill him was terminal. The conversation went something like this:
COATES: I have good news and bad news.
CAMPBELL: Give me the bad news first.
COATES: I’m dying of cancer.
CAMPBELL: My God, if that’s the bad news, what’s the good news?
COATES: I won’t get Alzheimer’s.
That black humour, and a sometimes-off kilter way of looking at life, was what made Len loveable – to most people. Among his critics were the principal and other academics of Ryerson University. When he was editor of the Ryersonian newspaper, he drove those bureaucrats crazy with his editorials (and editorial cartoons) suggesting the university experience was all about the students and not about the staff. They didn't like that so much.
Len started his newspaper career working for Conrad Black on the Sherbrooke Record before joining the old Toronto Telegram and, eventually, the Star. He is credited with inventing automotive journalism and, in fact, was the founding president of AJAC (the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada), which celebrated 30 years of existence yesterday and which awards a $2,000 scholarship in his name each year to a student at Carleton University's School of Journalism.
So tonight will be a happy time at Ryerson. Among the missing, however, will be Rod and Sandy Campbell (they’ll be represented by Rod's brother Ross, of Burlington; Brian Cantley will award the second of the three bursaries). Rod is serving on a jury in L.A. (a murder trial) and unable to get away.
Just as Len was a pioneer in automotive journalism, Rod Campbell was a pioneer in the promotion of motorsport activities in Canada and the United States as well as the managing of motorsport enterprises. The love of racing and the people involved is what attracted them to one another.
"I went to my first car race, at the Nurburgring, in 1958," he told me once. "Moss and Brooks were in the Vanwalls, Collins and Hawthorne were driving for Ferrari. I got a seat across from the pits and, in those days, they had minute boards they held up to count down to the start of the race. So those cars were revving up and the whole ground just shook. I'd never seen a race before and I was enthralled."
He got into radio in sales in London, Ont., and sold a package of spots to Ed Leavens, a car dealer who raced on the weekends. "So I'd go to the races and phone in reports, making sure to mention how Ed did. He was a great racer, so that wasn't hard. I'd make money for the station and money for myself and keep a key advertiser happy. It worked really well."
Rod once described himself to me as a "quintessential hustler."
"In 1964, Sachs and MacDonald were killed. Dick Irvine was just starting out on the air on the CTV channel in Montreal (CFCF) and he interviewed me about it when we got back. That went okay so he asked me if I wanted to do the sports on TV on the weekends. I said 'sure,' because I only had about three things going on . . . I was sales manager at CFOX (a Montreal radio station), we were trying to figure out how to get St. Jovite built (Le Circuit-Mont Tremblant) so why not do TV, too?"
Well, he was instrumental in getting Le Circuit built (with the help of many others, including Ross de St. Croix and John Ross), was the track announcer there (with Pierre Luc and Jacques Duval) and at Mosport for the first F1 Grand Prix of Canada (with Dave Cook), was the first PR guy hired to promote the original Can-Am Series and then went to work for Liggett and Myers Tobacco in 1970 to represent Jackie Stewart (a friendship that continues to this day).
When L&M pulled out of racing at the end of 1973, Campbell got a call from American millionaire Brett Lunger to manage his F1 career.
"We did a deal with John Surtees to put Brett in one of his cars," he told me. "That was the year (1976) that Brett crashed with Niki Lauda at the Nurburgring and Lauda was nearly killed. Niki had crashed and Brett T-boned him; he and Guy Edwards pulled Niki out of the car.
"I still have his trophies; he wasn't interested in keeping any of it. I have his shoes from that crash, with burn holes through the soles."
When Lunger decided to stop racing, Campbell went to see Walter Wolf, who'd purchased all of Frank Williams' equipment after supporting him for a year.
"Walter knew I was the only other Canadian on the scene and he ran with the Maple Leaf flag on his car. He said to come in with him and be his marketing guy and PR guy and it was the most fun I ever had in racing. Jody Scheckter was the driver, Harvey Postlethwaite was the designer and Peter Warr was the team manager. We finished second in the world championship: we won Argentina, Monaco and we won the 1977 Canadian Grand Prix. It was fan-tastic."
By the time Wolf got out of racing, Campbell had started Campbell and Co. in Detroit and the rest, as they say, is history.
These days, he's still hard at it. He's currently busy helping young California racing driver Gustavo Menezes to establish himself as a professional racing driver and he's very involved in the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, a project that -- as many of us know -- can use his help.
Which reminds me.
The Motorsport Hall is offering an Early Bird Discount for 2012 Induction Gala tickets. (Rod's been a marketing and PR guy all his life, so won't mind me sticking this in . . .)
Tickets for the 18th annual Gala, scheduled for April 21, 2012, at On The Park, Toronto, went on sale this week and those purchasing and paying for tickets prior to Dec. 31, 2011, will received a $20 discount per ticket - a saving of $200 for a table of 10.
You may order tickets by calling 905-852-6764 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
I'll be there to act as Master of Ceremonies, and if that trial in California that's kept him from attending tonight's celebration at Ryerson is over, so will Rod and Sandy.
Why not plan to join us? We'll have a swell time.