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Ranger Appears To Be Top Canadian Prospect

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 25 2009
Quebec's Andrew Ranger will be in a Nationwide Series car this weekend.

Quebec's Andrew Ranger will be in a Nationwide Series car this weekend.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Can a young man from Quebec climb the ladder and make it big in NASCAR? The flip side of this question: Can NASCAR ever make it big in Canada, a country long dedicated to road racing?

Andrew Ranger, aged 22, may be the answer to both questions.

The driver who hails from the tiny burg of Roxton Pond has already made his mark in NASCAR’s Canadian Tire Series. The next rung on the ladder for Ranger is the Nationwide Series race in Montreal, where he will drive for CJM Racing on Sunday.

“To be with that team, to prove what I can do, it’s a big weekend for me,” said Ranger, who tested with CJM Racing at the Carolina Motorsports Park in preparation. To have a ride in the Nationwide race, to race in front of my home crowd is fantastic.”

Ranger, whose name is pronounced “ron-jay,” not only speaks the language of the Quebecois, making him a logical choice for a sponsor. He knows the track in Montreal, which is 40 miles from his home town. He has two victories on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in the Formula Renault Series and one in last year’s Canadian Tire Series event.

The Nationwide race will hardly lack for Canadian flavor. Ontario native Ron Fellows returns to defend last year’s victory and French-Candian veterans Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani are entered. J.R. Fitzpatrick, another Ontario native and a graduate of the CTS series, will make one of his select appearances in the entry of Kevin Harvick. Jean Francois Dumoulin, a Grand-Am series regular from Trois Rivieres, will do double duty.

Fellows, who was regarded as too old when he shopped himself for a regular ride in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup in the late 1990’s, said young Ranger must make good on his opportunity on Sunday if he hopes to advance in NASCAR. “You have to make the most out of it when you get there,” said Fellows.

Having done a hurry-up deal late last year for selected races with Fitz Motorsports that fizzled after the team ran into financial troubles, Ranger is aware of the pitfalls. Last year at Montreal, snafus in the rain cost him a top-10 finish. “It’s a pretty important weekend for me,” he said.

By testing and visiting the CJM shops prior to the race, Ranger is already a step ahead of last year’s hasty approach. The CJM team has been running Scott Lagasse Jr. with occasional appearances by Denny Hamlin in its Toyotas this year.

As a regular in the only NASCAR series in Canada, Ranger hopes to follow in the footsteps of Gilles Villeneuve, who started his career as a snowmobile racer, and son Jacques. The Villeneuves were lionized by their countrymen as small town Canadians who went on to acclaim in Formula 1. But Ranger hopes to turn his grass roots effort into success in NASCAR.

“Jacques is really my biggest hero,” said Ranger. “He won the world championship in 1996 and that put a lot of interest into car racing for the people of Canada. That’s why I started racing.” Another influence was his father Robert, who raced Modifieds for 25 years, occasionally making the 300-mile trek from local dirt tracks to the Syracuse Mile.

Advancing quickly, Ranger was the top rookie in a talented field of Atlantic Series drivers in 2004 at the age of 17. He was the youngest driver to achieve a podium finish in the Champ Car series the next year. But following a second year in Champ Car, the money ran out after finishing 10th in the points again. That’s when he decided to make the switch to racing “sur ovales.”

“It’s really fun open-wheel racing,” he said, “but it’s tough to find the money. That’s why we made the jump to NASCAR.”

Dave Jacombs, a 30-year veteran of the CASCAR circuit that preceded the NASCAR foray into Canada, stepped aside to give Ranger an opportunity, funded in part by a unique charity program sponsored by Tide. It has helped raise over $800,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network through Ranger’s personal appearances at Wal-Mart stories across Canada.

“He listens to me and he wants to learn,” said Jacombs of the decision to turn his car over to Ranger after an effort to find sponsorship with Carpentier came to naught.

Ranger won the title in the first season of CTS in 2007 at the age of 20. Comparable to a traveling Late Model series in the U.S., the CTS will run a preliminary race in Montreal one hour before the Nationwide event, when Ranger will attempt to complete a sweep of all four of the road course events on this year’s 13-race schedule.

“I know the road courses well,” said Ranger, who leads the championship, “and it’s important for me to have good races and get my points. I have also won two races on the ovals this year.”

Should Ranger use the CTS as a stepping stone to bigger things, it can only help solidfy NASCAR’s foothold in Canada, where it must compete with major events like the IndyCar race in Toronto and a possible return to Montreal of Formula One next year. Without a major oval, NASCAR must rely on the Nationwide race and the CTS, which was purchased from CASCAR in 2006, to carry the flag.

“If you back up and look how its changed from the CASCAR series and all NASCAR has done by bringing in an iconic company like Canadian Tires,” said Fellows, “I think the CTS is on very solid footing.”

The broader popularity of stock car racing in Canada depends on how well its drivers fare in the U.S. “Now you have a lot of young guys who are hoping to race south of the border in NASCAR,” said Fellows. “That really wasn’t what the series had before.”

In that sense, Ranger is one of his country’s Drivers of Tomorrow. In Sunday’s Nationwide race, in front of a home crowd and a field including his childhood hero, the young man from Roxton Pond will try to bring tomorrow another day closer.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 25 2009
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