Starting the engines for the Canadian Motor Speedway
By Jacquelin Bhandari
If you live anywhere in southern Ontario, you’ll know that when the ice melts, the minds of racing enthusiasts turn to motorsports. Even the smaller towns have their own oval tracks, road courses, karting tracks and drag strips for all kinds of racing. People travel from all over Canada and the United States to see the races, enjoy the festivities and head on back home.
Plans are currently underway to build a significant national stadium complex and racing facility that will host major sanctioned racing series, provide a major motor sports testing and innovation hub, while providing Canada’s largest entertainment venue for concerts and a myriad of non-racing content. Azhar Mohammad serves as the development’s Partner and Executive Director of the Canadian Motor Speedway. With the support and leadership of CEO & Director Ibrahim Aboutaleb and their team of major Canadian partnerships, they are responsible for developing what promises to be Canada’s first world-class entertainment and motor sports venue in Fort Erie, Ontario.
In 2008, Mohammad and his team at the Canadian Motor Speedway gained the support of motorsports legend and 4-time NASCAR Champion Jeff Gordon, and his step-father, John Bickford, the Vice President and General Manager of Jeff Gordon Inc. As Gordon’s career transitions from racing to off-track activities, CMS presents the perfect opportunity to make racing history in Canada.
CMS and IBI Group are working closely with Jeff to design the world class facility, including the oval track component and associated racing infrastructure.
“The project is something that Canada needs on a national scale,” says Mohammad, “and it’s a game changer for motorsports and innovation in this country. Globally, CMS will lead in terms of how tracks can perform efficiently within an optimized revenue model, intelligent design and operations.”
Carbon neutrality is going to be a large part of how the track and overall facility will operate. Even before building the facility, environmental enhancements are being used on site as well as best forestry practices to further promote cleaner air. This falls in line with Jeff Gordon’s own environmental initiatives within the industry, such as the banning of lead-based fuels in racing. Throughout the design and construction, Canadian Motor Speedway plans to achieve carbon neutral status by offsetting any carbon dioxide released through racing by using environmentally-friendly practices and sustainable technologies in everyday operations of the track.
Since 2007, the Canadian Motor Speedway developers have been consistent in meticulously adhering to the planning approval processes in Ontario. Nine years later, Mohammad and his team of consultants, builders and promoters are excited to move this project forward. Bickford says that the track and ancillary supporting facilities themselves are estimated to cost $400 million to build however the complete development on the 830-acre footprint has the potential to become a $1 billion-dollar initiative. The Province estimates that the facility, will generate over $450 million annually in economic impact once fully operational.
The speedway will be Canada’s largest oval track and also Canada’s largest stadium, capable of holding 65,000 cheering spectators. The three-quarter-mile banked oval track will not only accommodate United States and Canadian racing series, but the size of the track will allow fans to see other exciting forms of racing with lots of passing, keeping them engaged throughout the race.
“No matter where you sit, you can see the whole track,” according to Bickford.
However, the Canadian Motor Speedway is not just building a track, they are building an ultra-modern, multi-use sports and entertainment destination that also brings together all the components of racing —research and development, event planning, light industrial, retail and commercial — while offering a place to stay overnight.
“At the end of the day, if you’re going to have sustainable employment and continued growth you have to be a place that is a destination point,” says Bickford. “I believe the team that Azhar and Ibrahim have assembled will create the unique environment that attracts different people with exceptional skill sets from within the Southern Ontario and Niagara Region.”
Bickford is particularly interested in the educational aspect of motorsports. “Within the educational and innovation component of CMS, we will create conduits to generate ongoing funding for our university and college partners and offer their services to the industry for testing and research,” he says.
The project has gained enormous support from a variety of programs at post-secondary institutions all over Ontario, including hospitality, sports management, renewable technologies, and automotive power and engineering. Niagara College, McMaster University, University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and, most recently, Brock University all see the value in being a part of the Canadian Motor Speedway.
“I’m an advocate for educating for employment,” says Bickford. The institutional partnerships that have pledged support for CMS will not only have access to the track to conduct studies and develop new technologies, but students will also gain real-life experience working in the automotive industry and have exposure to a world class, live entertainment venue that will have an iconic status in the country.”
According to Mohammad, one of the reasons he thinks the Canadian Motor Speedway should be built in a smaller town is economics. “Anywhere a speedway of this size comes into a small community (in the U.S.), you see the small towns experiencing a thriving, reviving economic boom.” He adds that, “Canadian Motor Speedway will no doubt set a precedent in Canada with respect to generating major economic stimulus in a non-manufacturing segment through foreign direct investment.”
This large-scale project, which will require 332 hectares of land in Fort Erie, is only a 15-minute drive from Niagara Falls and will be completely visible from the QEW. This will prove to be a strategic location for future investors, but despite tremendous community support, there are still a few remaining bureaucratic processes to address.
In June of 2013, the Ontario Municipal Board issued approval for the rezoning of a Special Policy Area, where the track will be built. The Town of Fort Erie declared Canadian Motor Speedway lands a “strategic location for investment,” and The Region of Niagara issued development fee reductions and tax investment grants for the project through its Economic Gateway initiative.
Mohammad also says that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s key portfolio Ministers from Finance, and Economic Development and Infrastructure see the potential powerful impact of the project on Ontario. The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport continues to champion the project at the Provincial level given its potential to generate a major tourism boost to Ontario. Despite this support, in 2015, the Town of Fort Erie was not selected by the Province of Ontario for the Small Communities Component of the Building Canada Fund which would have assisted with updating infrastructure required to attract development. Irrespective of this setback, the team at the Canadian Motor Speedway remains enthusiastic to see this project through and has continued to work with Fort Erie and the Region to seek alternatives to fund off-site infrastructure upgrades required to support its major investment.
CMS CEO Ibrahim Aboutaleb says that after years of approval delays and rescheduled deadlines, “(the community) is frustrated and would like to see something that will change the face of the whole region. The feedback has been extremely positive and continues to validate the demand for such a facility that will have the ability to support so many families in the area.”
Greg MacPherson, the owner of Inside Track Communications promotes the Canadian Motor Speedway in his many publications.
“We work closely with CMS and keep readers posted on the progress of the project,” he says. “There are some good people there, and we are very excited to see the track built.”
Neither Bickford nor Mohammad are confirming completion dates, but instead are enthusiastic about starting on site alteration work mid-summer of 2016 to prepare the land for full construction activities.
“We’re at the point where once things start going, they won’t stop until the project is complete,” says Bickford.
For more information and live updates on the Canadian Motor Speedway’s progress, visit cdnmotorspeedway.com.
This year, the Canadian Motor Speedway made a huge appearance at Motorama Custom Car and Motorsports Expo in Toronto. Over 30,000 people were in attendance for the three-day event running March 11-13, 2016 at the International Centre. Canadian Motor Speedway’s display featured Jeff Gordon’s race winning NASCAR Sprint Cup #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy SS race car from Jeff’s 93rd and final career win. Motorama attendees were excited to see the actual race car from the November 2015 Martinsville race, complete with dents, confetti and Pepsi spray from victory lane.
Greg MacPherson, who also promotes the show, was interviewed for his perspective of the show overall. “It’s very much a social event. There are a lot of people who love cars, who love racing and Motorama is a chance for these people and their families to catch up after the long winter.”
According to MacPherson, Motorama is about 300,000 square feet of show space and known as Canada’s largest indoor show of its kind. Before 2015, Motorama used to be only about motorsports but has since included custom cars and vintage cars, allowing many exhibitors including the Canadian Motor Speedway to gain twice the exposure in one shot.
This year also saw busloads of high school seniors attend the show to admire expert craftsmanship and savour the best of motorsports culture. MacPherson also noted a higher participation from colleges looking to develop various automotive research and trades programs. He says that, “this gives an opportunity for younger kids to see how they can turn their passion of cars and racing into a career.” Niagara College’s display with Canadian Motor Speedway featured their Motive Power and Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation programs.
Motorama 2017 will be hosted at the International Centre from March 10-12. For more information on Motorama, visit www.motoramashow.com.