A big deal was made just about this time last week about Alex Tagliani signing to drive a Ferrari for Remo Ferri and AIM Autosport of Woodbridge in a Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series race at Kansas Speedway next weekend.
Media releases about all this resulted in positive blog postings and newspaper articles, particularly in the Toronto area. And it was good news, don’t misunderstand.
But lost in the shuffle, somewhere, was the information that Kenny Wilden of Oakville would be driving in place of Papis this past weekend at Road America and that was unfortunate because Wilden turned out to be a star of the Grand Am show there on Saturday afternoon.
Literally minutes after finishing 12th in the Continental Tire race at the Elkhart Lake circuit, Wilden strapped himself into the No. 61 R. Ferri/AIM Motorsport Racing with Ferrari 458 Italia missile and started the Grand Am Rolex race in fifth place in the GT class. At the wave of the green, he jumped two cars to move into third place and was up to second when he made the team’s first pit stop 45 minutes later.
I was watching the race on television and that pit stop was as exciting as any you will see in NASCAR or IndyCar because the AIM team sent Wilden on his way quickly enough that he beat another Ferrari Italia driver, Leh Keen, out of the pits to take over the lead of the race.
You don’t see that sort of thing very often in sports car racing.
Wilden then proceeded to hold the lead until the second stop, when he turned the car over to Ferri/AIM co-driver Jeff Segal.
As was seen during the Sunday afternoon NASCAR Sprint Cup race, yellow caution periods can determine race outcomes in a sometimes most unfair way and the Saturday Grand Am race illustrated that perfectly.
Segal dipped into the pits shortly after his stint began when the yellow came out – he wanted to make sure the team had enough fuel to make the finish – but a combination of different strategies and bad racing luck saw him drop back as far as seventh in class and although he fought his way up to finish fourth, the team missed the podium.
A shame – but just one of those things.
The buzz, post-race, though, was all about Wilden. Probably one of Canada’s finest road racers, he’s just never been in the right place at the right time, or didn’t have the money, or been the victim of negative circumstances that prevented him from either proving he could get the job done or that he was worthy of a full-time, top-of-the-line, ride.
You want negative circumstances? Once, a competitor convinced Wilden’s sponsor that he could win a series championship for half the money the sponsor was paying Kenny. He didn’t but that was beside the point because Wilden couldn’t race without the sponsorship money.
And he was on the verge of moving into the CART Indy car series when the two sponsoring companies he’d signed were sold and the new owners tore up the contracts.
But unlike many other drivers who've quietly disappeared from the scene (racing really can be a cruel sport), Wilden put his head down and carried on. He’s been able to stay active in the upper echelons of the sport (he started racing in 1987 when he was in his early 20s) because of an uncanny ability to race and win in literally any kind of car – from showroom stock cars, to Trans-Am sedans, to Formula Atlantics to – as he showed Saturday – Grand Am sports cars.
"I can pretty much drive anything fast," he told me a few years ago when I wrote a feature about him for Toronto Star Wheels. As he proved Saturday, you can say that again.
Tagliani will get his shot in the Ferrari next weekend at Kansas. He’s a wonderful driver, too, but will he be able to do as well as Kenny Wilden?
It'll be fun to find out.