Keeping it Off The Wall
Autocourse CART Yearbook 1999-2000
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It was early August 1996. Indycar had an off week so there was no good excuse for blowing off the painting of that last remaining side of the house. At least not until I found out what was going to happen in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Canada that weekend.
Vaguely, I recalled the annual Trans Am/Toyota Atlantics weekends at "Three Rivers". I remembered casually watching some of those events as TV re-runs at odd hours. This weekend, however, would mark the first time that the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres' street extravaganza would feature a real CART race - Indy Lights.
"What's a mere 300-mile drive, especially when there's no need to spend for a hotel room, after the thousands of miles and big room charges I've racked up in the last six weeks chasing Indycar through Cleveland, Toronto and Michigan?" I said to myself.
So at about 2:00 AM on Sunday morning August 4, 1996 I jumped in the car and headed north. By 4:30 I was in Montreal where I stopped to stretch, check the road map and have a cup of coffee. It was easy ordering java at an American-looking Dunkin' Donuts shop. The young lady who waited on me at the counter was quite friendly and she even seemed happy to be conversing with me in English.
Trois-Rivieres, the New World's most venerable street event, is about 90 miles north of cosmopolitan Montreal. An hour-or-so later there I was in the event parking area, starvin' like Marvin for a real breakfast.
"Quaint little "European" city out here in the Quebeckian sticks," I thought. "Put your imagination to work and you might even picture yourself in Monte Carlo." It didn't turn ugly until after I parked the car near the main gate and walked a few blocks down a corkscrew to a clean, busy little restaurant.
"Bon jour," the waitress said. The rest of her greeting was "all Greek" to me.
I studied the menu that she had left…more Greek. I was really in the mood for some hot cereal, so when the waitress returned to take my order I asked for oatmeal as clearly and politely as I could. She didn't understand.
"See-ray-al," I offered nice and slow. No dice.
"Pour-odge?" I queried. Negatory.
By the time I finished going through brand names - Quaker, H-O, etc. - it was becoming very obvious to me that Madame Garconette just plain didn't want to acknowledge that the English language exists!
I wasn't about to dishonor the memory of my favorite actor, Jackie Gleason, by doing Gigot hand gestures to explain my request, so when she pointed to the breakfast section of the menu for the fourth time I finally put my finger on "crepes". It was the only word on the page that I recognized.
"Oui, crepes!" she squealed with mock delight.
No sooner did she am-scray than I started wondering if "crepes" were going to be those girlish mini-pan rollups. I prayed they would be something more manly and American - like hotcakes.
I knew my prayer was answered when she showed up a few minutes later with a tall stack with crispy home fries on the side. They were some of the best pancakes I'd ever had. Unfortunately, they were not delicious enough to neutralize the bad taste I had in my mouth over the earlier anti-English fiasco.
Once inside the interesting Grand Prix venue I was impressed by the quality of the temporary circuit and by the obvious fervor of the French-Canadian racing fans. Though I heard no English spoken all day I nevertheless felt right at home. Speed, of course, is the universal language.
The winner of Saturday's Atlantics race, Patrick Carpentier, mingled with the delighted throng of his fellow Quebec residents. Some of the other local favorites followed his lead. It was a very homey touch. There was lots of laughter.
My viewing position for the Indy Lights race was at the end of a kink that leads into The Gate, a colorful stone arch monument. The racecourse goes right through the arch of The Gate and into a left-hander that shoots uphill to the city's swimming pool complex. Then it's around a playground and into a series of turns that outskirt an old minor league baseball stadium and a hippodrome (horseracing track).
The premier Trois-Rivieres Indy Lights race was a nail-biter. Teammates Tony Kanaan and Helio Castro-Neves swapped the lead throughout the main event. Helio notched his very first CART-sanctioned victory that day (though I don't remember him bursting into tears or climbing a catch fence when he got out of his car).
After the race I spotted Mario Andretti getting into his Ferrari for the ride back to Nazareth, PA. Michael's brother Jeff was a back marker in a right-hand drive Euro-Toyota touring car in the NATCC race that had run just before the Lights.
On the way out of Trois-Rivieres I drove past the little restaurant at the bottom of the corkscrew. "I'll never go back there again," I vowed.
Then, at the end of the main drag just before the highway to Montreal, I saw one of the most anti-American things you could ever imagine seeing a mere 300 miles from your own backyard. The sign on a KFC said something like: "Poulet de Colonel du Kentucky". It was very sad.
Though I tried my level best I was not able to catch up to Mario in my SE-R on the way home. However, chasing the Icon of Speed certainly helped me relate to the feelings his son Jeff must have had as a back marker in the North American Touring Cars race.
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