If you build it, they will come.
That’s what investors are banking on in the construction of the $400-million Canadian Motor Speedway (CMS) in Fort Erie, ON.
The project, which is primarily backed by the Kuwaiti Investment firm The International Investor and designed by NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon, has been slow moving since conceptualized in 2005.
Gordon was in Toronto to promote the Chase for the Sprint Cup (NASCAR’s playoffs) which kicks off this weekend in Chicago. While he talked about his advancing age and an attempt at a fifth career Cup championship, the veteran driver also fielded questions about his involvement with CMS.
“Every couple of months, you know, I go "OK, where are we at?” and I keep getting good news each time that I ask,“ he said at a press conference held at the CN Tower on Wednesday. "We brought the simulator into my office recently, we are moving forward. I can’t say it’s full speed ahead because it does take a long time for these things to get done.”
The proposed track would be comprised of a ¾-mile oval (1.2 kilometres) with an additional 2-mile (3.2-km) road racing course. The site would hold 65,000 spectators and have the ability to expand to 100,000.
Constructing an NHL-sized hockey rink beyond the pit wall as well as an amphitheatre is part of the plan, in addition to developing commercial space. One of the selling points is the close proximity of the 332-hectare plot of land to the United States which would allow for a short trip by fans south of the border.
“It’s a big project, it goes beyond just racing, it is a project that is going to incorporate local business and entertainment on a whole other level,” Gordon said. “That is what you have to do with these types of facilities today, it has to incorporate more than just a racetrack.”
After going through various regulatory processes such as environmental assessments and zoning applications, ground was broken in the fall of 2013. The CMS group still slates the project to be completed by the third quarter of 2016.
However, upon completion there is no guarantee that NASCAR will sanction a top-tier race such as a Sprint Cup event at CMS.
“NASCAR normally doesn’t get involved in the early concept or design stages of any tracks,” said George Silbermann, vice president of NASCAR’s regional and touring series. “For us, it’s you build it and we will come and take a look at it, so if and when this facility gets built, we will take a serious look at it.”
Even if the track is up to snuff, scheduling may be an issue. NASCAR already has a full season of 36 races in its recently released 2015 Sprint Cup schedule. The dates are booked solid and could be for years to come.
To boot, the schedule runs from February to November, leaving approximately half of those months in question when factoring in weather in the Niagara region during spring, late fall and winter.
"We basically have a full plate, (but) there has been movement in the past, there may be movement in the future,“ Silbermann said. "If you are talking about a Sprint Cup race in Canada, right now there is nothing available, but if something does become available - yes it is on our list of important markets and we will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
NASCAR racing currently exists in Canada, most notably in the form of the Canadian Tire Series which is run on shorter length ovals as well as street and road courses.
Gordon’s association with the CMS project came about through his stepfather John Bickford, who is vice-president and general manager of Jeff Gordon Inc., which handles all of the racer’s business ventures. Bickford was approached by Paxton Waters, an architect who designed the Iowa Speedway, which has a comparable track length to the one due to be constructed at the CMS facility.
“There was a group of investors that were interested in doing a project in Canada with a similar type of racetrack that was in Iowa, using that sort of as a basis,” Gordon said. “They wanted somebody to be involved with the design aspect of it that brought some recognition and a name to it, so that’s how it originally started, and it’s grown tremendously from there from being a concept to coming closer and closer to reality.”
Erik Tomas, a motorsports broadcaster who also doubles as a media consultant for CMS, says Gordon’s presence in Toronto, coupled with his comments on the project, had an impact on racing fans in this country.
"It is the first time that Jeff has come to Canada and talked to the general media in detail about what his involvement is with CMS,“ Tomas said. "It gives the project instant notoriety when you can get a guy who is one of the top stars, a four-time champion and one of the most popular drives in the world that is involved on the ground level.”
Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya