Who will be the next Canadian Champ Car idol?

   by Cássio Côrtes
August 30, 2004

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Bringing in the next wave of Canuck stars is Champ Car’s best bet to brush off the IRL’s inevitable charge on Canada.

Michael Valiante

The success of the Canadian races, or “Molson Indys” if you will, have arguably been responsible, alongside the Mexican events, for Champ Car’s very survival in the past two years. As they say, “it’s the drivers, stupid”, and Champ Car’s popularity in the Great White North, thanks to its Canadian hero hot shoes, gave it a much-needed help to stay afloat during the turmoil of 2002-2003.

And yet Paul Tracy, at 35, isn’t exactly getting any younger. Tagliani hasn’t quite been winning races by the bunch, and the rumors of Pat Carpentier defecting to the IRL refuse to go away. Who’s going to be the next Canadian hero? We think Champ Car would be wise to come up with an answer soon.

As of now, two prospects stand out: 17-year-old Andrew Ranger, who despite his young age and his condition of rookie has consistently been on pace with Toyota Atlantic’s frontrunners, and perennial hard-lucker Michael Valiante, 24. Since the IRL’s desire to take over the Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal Molson Indys is well-known, Champ Car’s best chance for success on the inevitable dispute for the Canadian market may ride on its ability to not only retain Ranger and Valiante, but also promote them as the next sources of Maple Leaf pride.

Despite sharing the same nationality, Andrew and Michael sit on diametrically opposed situations. Valiante’s story is known all too well: as the 2002 Toyota Atlantic runner-up (to Jon Fogarty by a single point, after coming into the last race atop of the standings), the British Columbia native had a handful of Champ Car tests, impressing Derrick Walker enough to assure a ride for the ’03 finale at Fontana - until the wildest of wildfires prevented him from making his major-league debut.

With Walker Racing’s 2004 deal coming almost past the 11th hour, and Derrick’s decision to sign Mario Haberfeld, Valiante found himself living the Via-Crucis of every rideless driver: trying to get as much “face-time” and handshakes per race as possible. Not exactly a racer’s best idea of having a good time: “It’s the most difficult thing, showing up on race weekends without knowing what will happen,” he admits.

Ranger, for his part, lies in a much more comfortable position. His rookie status in Atlantics gives him some cushion to make mistakes, and the French-Canadian has shown speed, if not yet consistency, throughout the season. Most importantly, Andrew enjoys a luxury seemingly reserved to Mexican drivers as of late: a sponsor willing to nurture his way to the upper echelons of racing.

Andrew Ranger

Procter & Gamble Canada advertises its Tide detergent on the sidepods of Ranger’s Sierra Sierra Enterprises car. Their willingness to step up a notch appears to be the defining factor on Andrew’s eventual rise to Champ Car - likely a matter of “when” rather than “if”.

Although Ranger reckons he is “very fortunate” to have a company of P&G’s stature behind him, most paddock sources, if not himself, admit a 2005 move to Champ Car would likely be premature. Andrew has yet to find victory lane in his Atlantic career.

Winning in Atlantics is something Valiante has done plenty - five times, to be exact, en route to runner-up and 3rd place campaigns in the ’02 and ’03 championships. Clearly done with feeder series racing, Michael’s still looking to make at least one Champ Car start this year. His best chances remain with Derrick Walker, “if either of us can come up with the funding,” he reveals.

Valiante can’t help but feeling puzzled by the lack of involvement by Canadian sponsors, the very ones that could provide him with such funds: “It’s one of the hardest things to understand. Player’s [cigarettes] benefited so much from its Champ Car program, and not just by having their names painted on a team’s sidepods.”

Apparently, Canuck businesses prefer to spend their motorsport dollars on an all-too familiar place: stock-car racing. NTN Bearings is an example of a Canadian company involved with NASCAR and CASCAR sponsorships. Turns out, their reasoning is similarly too familiar: “It’s so hard to find Champ Car on [Canadian] TV these days,” says Valiante. “A sponsor knows that if they can’t find a product on TV, neither will their potential customers,” he reasons.

Michael has been so close to a Champ Car opportunity so many times, and has seen it crumble down in so many ways, he’s found a psychological defense to avoid further heartbreaks in the future: “Unless I’m inside the car, I won’t ever think it’s a done deal.” Yet not even an experienced racer like him can avoid bursts of disillusionment: “I see the fans’ passion and patriotism at the Canadian events, I just wish Champ Car would worry about it [getting the media and the sponsors excited] as much as they do about the Mexicans.”

As a guest of RuSPORT during the Molson Indy Montreal weekend, Michael continues his almost everlasting search for a top-league seat, knowing time is hardly ever on a sidelined racer’s side.

“It’s good to know people still think about me for a ride,” he states before confessing: “But I know it’s only going to last for so long.”

Valiante is aware that for himself - and for Champ Car’s hold on its current monopoly of Canada’s big-name drivers and races - the clock is ticking.

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