By: Tyler Hill
In Canada, you probably only get to see one NASCAR race live a year at either Michigan International Speedway or Watkins Glen International. The dream of not crossing the border to see a NASCAR race was possible about 15 years ago. You could have instead attended a race at the Canadian Motor Speedway in Fort Erie, ONT. The proposed idea was introduced to the public in 2009. It has since become more of a pipe dream day by day or, in this case, year by year. So, what has happened since the project was introduced and approved by Fort Erie and Niagara?
First, an introduction to the proposed track itself, the Canadian Motor Speedway is supposed to be a short track. With four turns and a ¾ mile progressive banked oval with grandstands of 65,000 with the potential to expand. The banking isn’t expected to exceed 16 degrees. Plus, they plan to have an FIA graded road course track inside the facility, with tunnels connecting to the course going in and out under the back straightaway of the oval. As well, they would be able to have a garage, medical centre, and media centre. Every year, the track will host 10 special event weekends with hopes to attract NASCAR and IndyCar. The track is supposed to be modelled after Richmond Raceway and, as the track surface wears, Iowa Speedway. Situated in Fort Erie, ONT, the projected site sits on 821 acres of land and adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Highway.
As well, NASCAR shouldn’t be too hesitant to put a Cup race up north since it would only be 6.4 kilometres from the Canada/USA border, so it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to bring nearly 40 haulers across it. In addition, the track is 17 kilometres from Niagara Falls, ONT, which is close to entertainment, dining, and hotels.
It seems like the proposed circuit is in a good location. Now, what has taken so long to build it? Back in 2007, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and his design company were brought on to design the track. Once it was first introduced to the public, it was then brought to Fort Erie, and the Niagara Region council and the speedway were approved by them shortly after.
This is where things get interesting. After the approval by the city council in early 2010, the delays started. Appeals against the development were taken to the Ontario Municipal Board for a hearing in 2012 that included reasons not to build it. The site was on prime agricultural land and “a licenced quarry that has yet to be mined.” Finally, on November 5, 2012, a decision was made to approve the development and proceed to the next stage in the development process.
On October 9, 2013, construction “began,” and the speedway was expected to be completed by 2017. However, it didn’t “begin” at all as the picture was “staged.” According to an article from Niagara This Week, legally speaking, they weren’t allowed to break ground on the project because they didn’t (and still don’t) own the land needed to build the speedway. As part of the Ontario Municipal Board trial, the developers were ordered to purchase three critical parcels before a building permit could be issued. However, they never bought the land, never secured the building permit. Therefore were never able to put a shovel in the ground to begin building the speedway.
In April 2018, development was still stalled. Developers refuse to build the speedway unless an exit ramp is constructed for it off the Queen Elizabeth Way, a proposal the Ontario Govt. at the time opposed.
Where do we stand today?
There is still no funding from the Middle East investors in Kuwait. NASCAR is not associated with the speedway, so they won’t be too willing to hand over the money. It was associated with NASCAR in the beginning stages due to NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon’s design team, who consulted on design ideas for the track design. But NASCAR itself was never a part of the project. After the misleading branded association, It caught the attention of NASCAR’s lawyers, and they shut it down quickly. So, funding will most likely be from out of pocket from investors etc.
Fort Erie, ONT, also seems to believe in the project. On their website, under “major initiatives,” there still is the Speedway listed. There is no caption or link, but the logo is there.
According to an article from Niagara This Week, Aecon signed on to build the speedway/oversee the development back in 2013. When Niagara This Week reached out to them for comment, “To date, there have been no developments on our end. Best for you to speak to Canadian Motor Speedway.”
The biggest news came this past March when more than 25 acres of land owned by Canadian Motor Speedway was listed for sale. According to documents and previous statements made by the project director, Azhar Mohammad, the land being sold is within the proposed project area. However, this week he said they have not yet given up hope on the speedway.
"We are continuing with our work on the speedway," said Mohammad to the Toronto Star.
The land on Laur Road is within the boundary of this project. The proposed site map shows the Laur Road properties as part of the RV campground and parking lot attached to the project. That exact site plan rendering shows the outer edge of the track nearly 300 metres from this property.
Interestingly enough, the listing makes no mention of the proposed nearby speedway at all.
Before Sept. 2020, the developer was required to purchase three critical parcels of land. A building permit can only be issued once the speedway developers own those three properties.
A few weeks before that deadline, Mohammad sought a one-year extension to that date. Fort Erie councillors had support for the extension.
With ten of those 12 months already gone, Mohammad has not attempted to acquire the three properties he needs to purchase to keep the project alive.
Mohammad admitted to the Toronto Star that the funding (originally coming from the investors in Kuwait) had fallen through, and he was in the process of securing new financing.
If the speedway project were to continue, the developers would still need to purchase the three remaining properties to secure a building permit. With the clock ticking, Mohammad only has two months left to buy all three properties, rework the scale of the project to accommodate for the land being sold, and apply for that building permit.
If they fail to do so by then, the entire area goes back to being agricultural. Ok, if this gets built, what types of racing can they host? While there are other larger oval tracks in North America, CMS would be the largest in Canada. So it could host a wide variety of racing.
Putting the pandemic aside, getting a significant race will be difficult. It would take a lot of money to entice a Cup or IndyCar race to come north of the U.S. border. However, they could try to bring the Xfinity and Truck Series here first like Kentucky Speedway did and see if it works in terms of fans and then determines if it is Cup ready. However, they may have to wait due to so many venues waiting Stateside to host a top stock-car race, along with the present Cup races at nearby Michigan International and Watkins Glen. Still, getting a race every year by Trucks and Xfinity would be huge for CMS and beneficial to growing the fanbase for NASCAR north of the border.
The IndyCar racers could make a stop at CMS before or after their Detroit race. Or, if the Honda Indy continues in Toronto, a two-week stay in Ontario could be in the cards with the street race in Toronto and an oval race at CMS. But, the Toronto street race is becoming more lacklustre year by year. The only reason it stays is that they want to keep their fanbase north of the border. IndyCar needs more ovals, and they want to keep their presence up north, so let’s knock two birds in one stone and host these drivers and let them race on the oval. Then, if the race is like racing on the streets of Toronto, move them to the road course for the next season and see what happens there.
The least likely racing series to visit is Formula One. The track looks pretty good if they are looking at running a race on the road course. Of course, it can’t happen till after 2031, as the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has the series locked up to race there for at least another ten years. If this does get built by then, maybe they could host them in 2032. Have one race, see what the turnout is and if the racing is good, then keep it. If all else fails, wipe the slate clean and hurry back to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve without looking back. It is pretty hard to beat how good the racing is at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and the large fan turnout year after year when Formula One makes a stop there.
Only minutes from the American border, plans for CMS include a great deal more than racing. A motorsports research and development park is planned, and hospitality and hotel areas and camping grounds. A concert grandstand is also in the works, as well as an NHL-specification outdoor hockey rink. Perhaps this could be the site of the next NHL Winter Classic?
If CMS gets built next year, the owners could find themselves waiting in line for a significant race series event. Attracting large enough crowds from smaller-scale events for the starting years of this place to see some return on investment would be a concern for investors.
NASCAR fan Connor Henry says he makes a yearly trip to Michigan International but would “make a trip here instead of in a heartbeat.” Those reasons include “having to not to deal with the hassle of crossing the border and his love for grassroots/short-track racing.”
It has been about 15 years since this proposal was to be dreamed and it is still not built. Fans north of the border are growing impatient with the slow development of this speedway but still have hoped a miracle will happen and it will eventually be built in the coming years.