MONTREAL - Veteran racing driver Alex Tagliani says it would be crazy for his hometown to lose its NASCAR Nationwide race over what he feels is a pittance.
The fifth — and possibly last — running of the NAPA Auto Parts 200 will be held this weekend at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, where it has already built a history of aggressive racing marked by surprising finishes on the 2.27-mile road course.
The event's future was put in doubt when the Quebec government turned down a request for $500,000 to help promote it outside Montreal, an amount they hoped would be matched by the federal government.
"In my opinion, the small amount we're talking about for the government to invest would be killing two birds with one stone — to promote the race and to bring money into your own city," Tagliani said. "It's just that nobody seems to understand that, so we're very sad."
Former Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve of Montreal had made an impassioned plea to keep the race in media interviews earlier in the week.
NASCAR has yet to put out its schedule for 2012 and no decision has been made on whether it will include Montreal.
The race is owned by Florida-based International Speedway Corporation and its subsidiary Stock Car Montreal, which released a statement Wednesday that said they were encouraged by the strong support from fans and the media.
"Discussions are ongoing with all relevant parties in Montreal concerning future plans. We expect to have a decision in the next few weeks and will make an announcement at the appropriate time," it said.
If it's the last one, it will go out in style with a solid driver roster that includes Robbie Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and defending champion Boris Said, as well as Canadian road race vets Tagliani, who's from Lachenaie, Que., and Villeneuve, and what is expected to be the final race of former Champ Car ace Patrick Carpentier's long driving career.
Also on the track will be American star Danica Patrick and Maryeve Dufault, the Sorel, Que., native who is sometimes called Canada's Danica.
There has been speculation that if the race leaves Montreal it may move to the Mosport track near Toronto.
And there is the chance in future that it will become part of NASCAR's top class of racing, the Sprint Cup, a big move up from the second-tier Nationwide series. A bump in status would make it a much bigger event and would no doubt swell the crowds in the grandstands.
Supporters argue that the event brings tourist dollars and exposure to the city by being shown on ESPN in the U.S., but it is difficult to gauge its exact impact. Attendance figures aren't released.
All that is clear is that it draws a fraction of the visitors and excitement of the annual Canadian Grand Prix Formula One race, but that is an exceptional success that brings more than 300,000 fans per year to the track.
It is a very big deal for Canadian drivers, many of them road race specialists who are hired on to replace regulars on one of the few NASCAR events not run on an oval track.
Tagliani, who races full time on the IZOD IndyCar circuit for Schmidt Motorsports, feels he has a shot at winning by landing a hot car — the No. 12 Dodge Dealers-Hot Wheels entry.
"A No. 12 car won with Gilles Villeneuve, my idol, at the Formula One race (in 1978) and driving that number means a lot," he said.
Andrew Ranger of Roxton Pond, Que., will pilot the No. 53 NDS Motorsports Dodge Challenger and, like Tagliani, will also be in the NASCAR Canadian Tire series event. Dufault will have the No. 81 MacDonald Motorsports Dodge Challenger.
Villeneuve will drive the same No. 22 Penske Dodge he took to third place at Road America in June and that Kurt Busch used to win at Watkins Glen last weekend.
It will be a first Nationwide race for Dufault, the daughter of a motorcycle racer who has been working her way up the ladder in lesser series.
She has entered 12-of-13 races this year on the ARCA circuit, a stock car feeder series, posting a 10th place at Chicago. She has also worked as a model and a stunt double for films. The 29-year-old took part in the 2005 Lingerie Bowl, a half-time Super Bowl feature in which lightly clad women play 7-on-7 football.
"I started racing before I started modelling," she said at a media event with Ranger and Tagliani organized by local Dodge dealers. "I started motocross at four.
"My dad raced with Gilles Villeneuve and I grew up racing go-karts. In 2003 I went into formula racing — British F3, Formula Renault. I accomplished a lot in racing and to be in stock car today is just amazing; to be part of Nationwide."
She bristles slightly when it is suggested she will be compared to Patrick, the world's best-known woman race driver.
"She's competing like everybody else out there," she said. "It's not like 'Whoa, I'm racing against Danica.' I'm just out to do my best."