Generally, the Canadian racing scene is a very good one. Across Canada from the west coast to east coast, local Late Model racers have been proving themselves every summer.
While the APC United Late Model Series and Parts for Trucks Pro Stock Tour serve as Canada’s leading Late Model series, there have been plenty of events that have been big enough to bring the southerners up north. In the east, the IWK 250 has attracted the likes of NASCAR Cup Series veterans like Mark Martin and Kenny Wallace, while in Ontario the Canadian Short Track Nationals have attracted some big names including two-time winner Bubba Pollard. Events in Quebec have also seen stars such as NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Busch throughout the years.
While these events have attracted some big names and big money, most Canadian racers feel they need to migrate to the United States if they want to truly compete with North America’s best. Events like the Snowball Derby, Winchester 400, Oxford 250, Milk Bowl and All American 400 have all served as bucket list events for drivers from across Canada.
To some, it might seem easy to race in the United States. Just load up your truck, cross the border and come back with a trophy. Unfortunately, international travel in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic is not easy and some of the best drivers can attest to the tedious process required to make the trip.
“Getting your car across the border is the most difficult thing,” said 2016 CARS Super Late Model Champion Raphael Lessard. “When we ran in the states with our own car and my own team in 2016, crossing the border was a little intense sometimes. They just want to check everything and if you get to the border and have everything in your trailer on paper, they will be happy and let you through.”
Being prepared when crossing the border is imperative for any racer. Both the United States Border Patrol and the CBSA need to ensure that all teams crossing do so within the law. Being unprepared can have disastrous consequences for not only the driver, but for the team as well.
“If things aren’t on paper, it can take a very, very, long while for them to check everything,” Lessard added. “However, once I started driving for DGR-Crosley I didn’t have that problem anymore as the only thing I had to worry about was getting myself and my race suit across.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, it has made it even more difficult for Canadians to race in the United States. Former ACT Series driver and 2017 NASCAR Pinty’s Series Champion Alex Labbe currently races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for DGM Racing. Getting his start racing in ACT as well as at New Smyrna Speedway, Labbe can attest to how COVID has made it harder for him to travel back and forth.
“The last year has been pretty tough given the COVID restrictions and all,” Labbe said. “It’s different rules that we have to follow in every state. Things are pretty tight everywhere and when I come back, I have to quarantine for two weeks and that definitely makes travel a lot tougher for me.”
Drivers confirmed that the return home is typically easier.
“Going back to your country always goes smoother, as you endure more questions on the way down than you do on the way back,” Labbe said.
With the pandemic making it ever so hard for teams to cross, a lot of teams had to put their travel plans on hold while the world sorts itself back out. One driver who was looking to make the leap down to the states was APC Racing Series driver Danny Benedict. The 2018 Ontario Division 1 champion in the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series had big plans to venture down for his first foray into American racing.
“The guys who came up to race at Jukasa found out that it’s not as simple as just taking your car across the border,” Benedict said. “There is a lot of paperwork and a lot of information, organizing your guys to go down, do you all have your passports or do you have this and that. Making sure everything is organized is extremely tough.”
What makes Benedict unique is that his team does not run with as much funding as your average team in the Late Model scene, getting funding is always priority number one before you can even get across the border.
“The biggest problem that we face is getting sponsorship together,” Benedict added. “To approach a Canadian company and say ‘Hey, we want to race in the states’ leaves them scratching their heads as to why they would want to advertise in America. But if you approach an American company to sponsor a Canadian, it usually doesn’t work for them as they normally want to sponsor an American, so it’s definitely hard when there are so many costs and everybody is so far away.”
With events so big, every kid dreams of racing amongst some of the continent’s best competitors. With original plans to take on a four-race calendar, the plans included a stop at the famous Hickory Speedway as well as Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and the Snowflake 100 at Five Flags Speedway in Florida.
“The events are always so big, things like the Snowball Derby and Nashville draw you in but it’s also the competition factor as well,” Benedict concluded. “There are so many guys out in the Midwest or wherever you want to go, pitting yourself against that kind of competition is really big for our team and helps us branch out of the little circle of competitors we usually race against in Canada.”
As the world starts to bounce back from the pandemic, drivers across Canada have been working on plans to ascertain how they will get to the United States to race as soon as possible. While the domestic scene in Canada has still thrived due to the efforts of promotors getting a small calendar run, what is clear is that racing in the United States isn’t just a hobby for Canadian racers. It is a chance to prove themselves on the world’s biggest stage, with the goal of winning races, collecting big checks and possibly getting noticed enough to get a shot at the sport’s highest levels.
-Story by: Alex Gallacher, Speed51 Canadian Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51 / Duane Canfield