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Uncensored CΛRT Commentary
by Ed Donath

French dis-Connection (redux)

Apropos of recent and ongoing actions of our so-called ally, many Americans have sworn off of travel to France and are boycotting the purchase of French products such as popular Bordeaux wines. For me, as Yogi Berra once waxed French, this is like déjà vu all over again…

ATHENS, NY—It was early August 1996. Indycar had an off week so there was no good excuse for blowing off the painting of that last remaining side of the house. At least not until I discovered what was about to happen in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec that weekend, that is.

Vaguely, I recalled the annual Trans Am/Toyota Atlantics weekends at “Three Rivers”. I remembered casually watching some of those events as TV re-runs at odd hours. This weekend, however, would mark the first time that the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres street extravaganza would feature a real CART race – Indy Lights.

“What’s a mere 300-mile drive, especially when there’s no need to spend for a hotel room, after the thousands of miles and big room charges I’ve racked up in the last six weeks chasing Indycar through Cleveland, Toronto and Michigan?” I said to myself.

So, at about two in the morning on Sunday, August 4, 1996 I jumped in the car and headed north. By 4:30 AM I was in Montreal where I stopped to stretch, check the road map and have a cup of coffee. It was easy ordering java at an American-looking Dunkin’ Donuts shop. The young lady who waited on me at the counter was quite friendly and she even seemed happy to be conversing with me in English.

Trois-Rivieres, the New World’s most venerable street event, is about 90 miles north of cosmopolitan Montreal. An hour-or-so later there I was in the event parking area, starvin’ like Marvin for a real breakfast.

“Quaint little European-looking city out here in the Quebeckian sticks,” I thought. “Put your imagination to work and you might even picture yourself in Monte Carlo.” It didn’t turn ugly until after I parked the car near the main gate and walked a few blocks down a corkscrew to a busy little restaurant.

“Bon jour,” the waitress greeted me. The rest of it was all Greek – er French – to me.

I studied the menu but really had no idea what I was reading. What I was in the mood for was some hot cereal, so when the waitress returned to take my order I asked for oatmeal as clearly and politely as I could. She didn’t understand.

“See-ray-al,” I offered nice and slow. No dice.

“Pour-odge?” I queried. Negatory.

By the time I finished going through brand names it was becoming very obvious to me that Madame Garconette was just plain refusing to acknowledge that English – the American language and predominant tongue of her own country – exists.

I was not about to dishonor the memory of my favorite actor, Jackie Gleason, by doing Gigot-like hand gestures to explain my request, so when the waitress impatiently pointed to the breakfast section of the menu for the fourth time I finally put my finger on crepes. “Crepes”, after all, was the only word on the page that I could recognize.

“Oui, crepes!” Garconette squealed in mock delight.

But no sooner did she am-scray than I began wondering if crepes would be those creepy mini-pan girlie rollup thingies. I prayed that they would be something more manly and American, like hotcakes.

My prayer was answered when Madame showed up a few minutes later with a tall stack that shared an outsized plate with a mountain of crispy home fries. In fairness, they were actually some of the best pancakes I’d ever eaten. Unfortunately, however, those pancakes were not nearly delicious enough to neutralize the bad taste in my mouth over the earlier anti-American episode.

Once inside the interesting Grand Prix venue I was impressed by the quality of the temporary circuit and by the obvious fervor of French-Canadian racing fans. Though I heard not a word of English spoken all day, I nonetheless felt at home within the race venue. Speed, of course, is the universal language.

The winner of Saturday’s Atlantics race, Patrick Carpentier, mingled with the delighted throng of his fellow Quebecois. Other local favorites followed his lead, which was a very homey touch. There was lots of laughter.

My viewing position for the Indy Lights race was at the end of a kink that leads into “The Gate”, a colorful stone arch monument. The racecourse goes right through the archway of The Gate and into a left-hander that shoots uphill past the city’s swimming pool complex. Then it’s around a playground and into a series of esses that outskirt an old minor league baseball stadium and a hippodrome (French for horseracing track).

That premier Trois-Rivieres Indy Lights race was a nail-biter. Teammates Tony Kanaan and Helio Castro-Neves swapped the lead throughout the main event. Helio notched his very first CART-sanctioned victory that day, although I don’t remember him bursting into tears or climbing a catch fence when he got out of the car.

After the race I spotted Mario Andretti getting into his Ferrari for the trip back to Nazareth, PA. Mario’s other son, Jeff, had been a back-marker in a right-hand drive Euro-spec Toyota during the running of the now-defunct North American Touring Car Championship series race that preceded the Lights.

On the way out of Trois-Rivieres, as I drove past the little restaurant at the bottom of the corkscrew, I vowed: “I’ll never go back there again!”

Then, at the end of the main drag just before the onramp of the highway to Montreal, I saw one of the most anti-American things you could ever imagine. The sign on a KFC read: Poulet de Colonel du Kentucky. Not even 300 miles from the American Flag at my front door. How sad.

Though I tried my level best and had the speedometer of my SE-R pinned all the way to Montreal, I was never able to catch up to Mario’s Ferrari. However, chasing the Icon of Speed certainly enabled me relate to the feelings that his son Jeff had suffered through as he embarrassingly brought up the rear in the NATCC race.

Copyright © 2003 by Ed Donath and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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