Imagine waking up on a Sunday morning, walking down to the Monte Carlo Country Club, and climbing into a race car sponsored by George Clooney’s tequila company. Imagine receiving a police escort while driving this race car through the side streets of Monaco past party-goers still venturing home in their gowns and tuxedos after a night of lavish partying. Imagine you enter the race circuit, drive through the famous tunnel, down past the luxurious yachts, and park in front of the Ferrari Formula 1 team’s garage. Imagine one of the greatest dreams you’ve ever had come true. Imagine.
The story of how I was lucky enough to live my dream, and venture from driving tractors on a farm in Canada to driving race cars in Monaco, is one that officially began way back in 2002. It encompasses 15 years of exceptionally challenging hard work and support from many people. It’s a story that deserves to be told at some point in the future, long after my racing career is complete, but it’ll take a book to cover the life changing events that transpired during that period of time.
For now, I’ll focus specifically on the months leading up to the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix weekend. The money, the risk, the stress, the blackmail...everything!
The Allure of Monaco
Since becoming a fan of Formula 1 back around the year 2000, I have fallen in love with all of the race circuits on the F1 calendar. To be able to compete on the same circuits as the Formula 1 greats, also in a single-seater formula car, was a huge dream come true. Hockenheim and Nurburgring in Germany, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Red Bull Ring in Austria, Imola and Monza in Italy, Silverstone in England, Paul Ricard in France, etc, etc, etc, it’s been a huge privilege to drive on these storied race circuits in the footsteps of those I used to eagerly wake up to watch on TV in the early pre-dawn hours of a Sunday morning.
I have driven on many of these illustrious circuits on numerous occasions and the experience can start to become normal. But one thing was always lying in wait as the ultimate circuit of circuits and it was clearly going to be a major task to drive on it... Monaco!
The Monaco Grand Prix is one of the most prestigious and exclusive sporting events in the world and it is the crown jewel of the Formula 1 Grand Prix season. Monaco is a small principality carved out along the Mediterranean Sea on the French Riviera and the race circuit itself is made up of daily used streets that run right through the heart of Monaco. In fact, on Grand Prix weekend, these streets are opened up at the end of the day to allow traffic to flow and then reclosed again in the early morning hours prior to the day’s events. It is a circuit that is in use only on one or two weekends a year and it is therefore extremely difficult to have the chance to compete on.
I have had the opportunity to visit Monaco on several occasions but each time I refused. I wanted my first visit to this legendary place to be for the sole purpose of driving a race car and I didn’t want to lay eyes on it until that time.
Charting a Path
On a Grand Prix weekend there are several “supporting” race championships that compete alongside the main Formula 1 World Championship. At the Monaco Grand Prix it has typically been the GP2 Series (now known as Formula 2), Porsche Supercup, and at the time, the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship.
The Porsche Supercup isn’t single-seater racing so it wasn’t high on my radar at the time while the GP2 Championship is just below the Formula 1 level and would require a massive budget... so that left the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship as the most immediate and attainable option for me to be able to race through the streets of Monte Carlo.
The problem is that in order to compete in Renault 3.5, I would have to put together a budget of at least $1.5 million CDN. So this was a huge task that lay ahead, but it was a serious goal to push towards and the only possible way for me to race in Monaco within the immediate future.
From Deflation to Elation
In 2014 and 2015 I had been driving a Formula Renault 2.0 race car (little brother to the Renault 3.5) and at the end of the 2015 season I had been left wondering how I was going to put together the proper budget to compete somewhere in 2016.
Earlier in 2015 I heard that Renault was dropping their support of the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship but I assumed that another manufacturer would take up support of the Formula 3.5 series. I woke up one morning in December 2015, looked at my phone, and saw a piece of information on social media that had somehow escaped me for the previous few weeks. Renault is the one that had control over their spot on the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, and because they were no longer supporting the series, Formula 3.5 would no longer be racing in Monaco.
Talk about a kick in the gut! Now what was I going to do. The cheapest and most attainable option for me to drive a single-seater race car in Monaco had just been kicked out.
But that’s when I read further and realized to my surprise that the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup Championship would be taking its place!!
Wow! Talk about a rush of adrenaline. The same car I had been racing for the last 2 seasons was now going to be allowed to race through the streets of Monte Carlo at the Monaco Grand Prix just minutes before the main Formula 1 race would take place. I absolutely HAD to find a way to make this happen!
The Challenge Grows
There are several different championships/levels that used the same Formula Renault 2.0 race car. I had previously been racing in the Northern European Cup, which was supposed to be a partial step down from the main Renault 2.0 Eurocup, however, exactly the same teams and drivers were racing in both championships anyway so there was little difference except the price.
It has always been possible to jump freely between the Renault 2.0 Eurocup, Northern European Cup and Alps championships, just pay your entry fees and you can race. Those not participating in the full championships would be classified as “Wild Card” entries.
My initial thought was to find just enough money to do a couple of races and make sure one of them was to enter the Monaco event as a Wild Card entry. Then to my great disappoint I read that only those signed up for the entire 2016 Renault Eurocup season would be allowed to compete in Monaco, NO WILD CARD ENTRIES ALLOWED! Uh oh, this was a big problem...
This was a big problem because of the enormous cost needed to complete a full Eurocup season. Although I have always only been able to bring a budget that is a fraction of my competitors, it is still a substantial amount of funding that must be put together. I had been able to do the previous seasons in the Northern European Cup for annual budgets in the $250,000 - $350,000 CDN range. To do a full season in Renault Eurocup, even on the extreme low end, would cost in excess of $500,000 CDN.
Finding a Solution
I began reaching out to numerous teams that competed in the Renault Eurocup to discuss opportunities of driving for them and what type of budget we would be looking at. All knew that my single biggest goal was to compete at the event in Monaco.
I managed to boil everything down into a candidate for a potential team. The team was from Italy and presented an extremely unique offer for me to get around the budget problem of completing a full season and Wild Card issue for Monaco.
The idea was that I would pay the team’s entire entry fee for the FULL Renault Eurocup season (a relatively small fee) and then, since Monaco was towards the beginning of the season, I’d be able to compete there and could always leave the championship after that. This team assured me that it would be no problem on their end in regards to their standing in the championship as they already had another driver who would be able to pick up where I left off and finish the season in my car if necessary.
This wasn’t ideal as I would love to do the full season, but given that I would have less than two months to put a half million dollars together, it was the best option for me to be able to achieve the goal of racing in Monaco.
Injection of Hope
I settled on an agreement with this Italian team to complete the first 7 rounds of the Formula Renault Eurocup Championship, including the necessary 6 Official Eurocup preseason test days. I made sure to include in our contract that my participation in Monaco was mandatory and that the team would pay an enormous financial penalty, equal to almost the entire contract fee, should I not be able to race in Monaco, whether it was the team’s fault or anyone else’s.
Now the sweating was about to begin. I would need to make an initial deposit to the team upon signing the contract and then an additional $100,000 CDN only 10 business days later. If I emptied my bank account I had just enough to cover the small initial payment and, apart from some hot irons in the fire, I had no other guarantees. I hesitated on signing the contract as I didn’t want to sign, then not be able to make the 2nd payment and lose the initial deposit.
Suddenly, in one simple phone conversation, I was able to put together half of the amount needed for the 2nd payment. I’m simplifying things a little as there was a lot of legwork here, but we will save that for a book later :)
With this sudden injection of hope, I did something I very rarely do in business, and that’s take a financial gamble...I normally like to bet on sure things. I signed the contract, emptied my bank account, and began praying that I’d find the remaining $50,000 within the next few days.
Before you think I’m completely insane, let me assure you that the hot irons in the fire were all pretty hot and, if even a single one of them worked out, it would not only allow me to make the next payment, but also potentially provide the budget necessary to exceed the short term contract and complete the full season in the Renault Eurocup. It was worth the risk!
Throughout the process I tried everything I possibly could. I had a business proposition that I felt was competitive, if not superior, to anyone else seeking advertising/media dollars and I attacked wherever I could. I even reached out to 100 CEO’s from across Canada, mainly by guessing most of their email addresses. These emails led to dozens of promising phone calls that still to this day have potential opportunity, but unfortunately none of them flourished during the time necessary.
Each day passed quicker than the next, and one by one I watched these hot irons I had in the fire mysteriously begin to extinguish. D-Day was quickly approaching when the 2nd and largest payment of the season would need to be sent to the team... and I was still only halfway there! Losing sleep, working early morning till late at night, waking up each day with a pounding headache...it seemed impossible.
Then, on the very last day just before the payment is due, my phone rings. It’s a caller from the most unlikely place, offering to make sure I could make the next payment. Talk about a pressure release, I rarely cry but I will neither confirm nor deny that this may have been one of those occasions.
Sacrifices are a Choice
With the payment made I headed off to Europe to begin the Official Renault Eurocup preseason tests. Keep in mind that at this point I still didn’t have enough money lined up to make the next two payments, and those payments combined to equal a similar amount to what I just previously so narrowly scraped together.
I did everything I could to make things work financially. I cancelled my television, downgraded phone/internet to the lowest levels possible yet still able to conduct business, lived on the cheapest food I could find, literally digging through the pantry to look for whatever food had been tucked away in the past. I opted out of playing hockey for the first time in my life because I couldn’t afford the fee. While my competition was staying in 5-star hotels I stayed in the absolute cheapest places I could find, most often in a strangers spare bedroom somewhere along the way. I used every last air mile I had accumulated over the years as well as all the free car rentals I had compiled.
But let me stop for a second. Please don’t think that I am complaining and I’m not looking for any pity whatsoever. None of this was forced on me, it was all a choice that I made as I didn’t have to attempt racing cars. I’m stating this simply so you’ll understand what it took to turn this dream into a reality and that my journey to Monaco was far from glamorous.
It’s also important to note that during this time I received a massive amount of support from so many people who helped in so many ways. Some provided financially while others providing necessary support in different ways including generously opening up their homes for me to stay free of charge. There are far too many people for me to even begin mentioning them here because I know I will accidentally forget someone on the list at this moment.
The Pre-Season Begins
After arriving in Italy to meet the team for the first time and get properly fitted into the race car, we all jumped onto an airplane and headed to Spain for the first official preseason tests of the year. Once again I was behind the 8-ball as most of the other drivers had been driving almost nonstop since the end of the last race season. Not to mention I was still frantically trying to source the amount of money I needed in order to cover the last two payments which were quickly approaching.
Back on an airplane I was heading to Nice, France, where I would grab a rental car and head west down the Mediterranean coast towards the circuit of Paul Ricard for our next preseason test days. Allow me to point out that literally just a few minutes east of Nice lies the location of the big prize... Monaco! But as mentioned before, I refused to make the trip there until it would be for the specific purpose of climbing into a race car. I was also eager to get to the next wifi location as fast as possible so I could continue searching for the money I desperately needed.
After testing at Paul Ricard I eventually ended up back in Canada to continue working as hard as possible to put the resources together for my last payments. It was a constant struggle with a massive amount of pressure, but I need to give a shout-out to the corporate groups that came onboard to join me in this exciting adventure including Diabolica Wines, Silver Jeans Co, Casamigos, and Super Lube Auto Centres. There were a few additional partners also helping out with a willingness to cover expenses to my race car should I accidentally smash it into a wall at any point. That assurance allowed me to push a little harder on the track.
Everything is Ready
With great difficulty and struggle over the next few weeks, I was finally able to scrape together JUST enough to guarantee I could make the final two payments to the race team. It was an extremely nerve-racking time and if even one thing went awry from here on out, I’d be missing the ultimate prize of Monaco.
With that immediate pressure relieved just in time, I jumped back on an airplane and headed to Spain for the first races of the 2016 Renault Eurocup season. The Casamigos deal came together at this time, just 1 day prior to going on track for our first event at Motorland, hence not having the Casamigos branded race car for the first event.
At this time, with Monaco seemingly confirmed, my investors were also taking a look at booking a luxurious trip to come and watch the dream unfold at the Monaco Grand Prix. After all was said and done, 4 people had committed to purchasing expensive trips to join me in Monaco for the experience of a lifetime.
If you’re looking for specific details in regards to my experience of driving the race car itself and how the races went, you’ll need to wait for another time as details will pile upon details.
After completing the first few races of the season I was extremely excited that the next event was the most important one of them all. The one I had sacrificed so much for over the last 15 years and especially the last few months. The one I had dreamed about for so long and invested so much into. Monaco!
And that’s when it happened...
The Worst of the Worst
I was at the airport leaving Barcelona, the next event on the schedule was Monaco. That’s when I saw an email from the Italian race team I was driving with. The email came direct from the team’s manager and said that the Renault Eurocup had heard that I was only doing part of the season and they were questioning whether I would be eligible to race in Monaco.
I wasn’t overly concerned at that time as the team had assured me from the beginning that they would look after everything and there would be no problems. After all, I had a contract with the race team, not the Renault Eurocup, and my contract clearly stated that if I wasn’t racing in Monaco, no matter whose fault it was, the race team would be on the hook to reimburse me for everything that I had paid to them.
Thinking the team would come to a quick and easy solution for their problem with the Renault Eurocup couldn’t have been farther from the truth and I realized very quickly what the race team was trying to do in the process. In further communication they stated to me that unless I agreed to sign a new contract with them, one that would require me to give them even more money, I would not be allowed to race in Monaco.
Through a series of events it became crystal clear what was going on. The race team thought I had so much sponsorship money that I was going to get rich from racing in Monaco and they wanted to threaten my participation in this race as a way to extract more funds from me than we had agreed on. Obviously they couldn’t be farther from the truth as I was maxed out in all areas as mentioned above and was living on financial fumes.
Stress Level: Maximum
It was an unbelievably challenging situation for me to be put in. By this point I had paid almost the entire contract amount to the race team so they already had all of my money. All of my sponsors and supporters were expecting me to race in Monaco, nothing less. And a group of people had already paid huge dollars in booking expensive trip packages to Monaco to watch me race. I had given everything to the team and now they were turning around and saying unless I agreed to give them more, I wouldn’t be racing in Monaco.
A lengthy legal battle in an Italian court was simply not an option as even if I wanted to, I didn’t have any money to front towards seeking reimbursement, plus even threatening that option would have destroyed any chance to race in Monaco altogether. The race team knew I was backed into a corner and had no options so they tried to extort what they could from that position.
It was by far the most challenging and stressful business situation I have ever found myself in. After so much risk and work, when everything seemed like it was going to pay off, this has to happen.
Fortunately I was able to put together a solution to the problem and temporarily keep an outward positive relationship towards the team. But in my mind it was beyond smashed to pieces.
Thankfully, apart from one other absolutely horrendous experience with a Winnipeg law firm, I have been privileged enough to work with many wonderful and professional people throughout my lengthy racing career and have received nothing but support and encouragement along the way.
Learning New Skills
With that enormous disaster in the rear view mirror it was time to prepare for the upcoming race in Monaco. The next item on the list was to design the Casamigos race car and for the first time in my racing career I was going to have a chance to have a say on what my car would look like.
I had no money to hire a professional design team to work with me, so instead I spent a few days learning how Photoshop worked and was ready to make my own attempt at designing a car. I’m definitely not an artist, but after many revisions and tweaking I was extremely proud of how the Casamigos race car design came out.
I jumped on an airplane and headed to the team’s race shop in Italy to begin transferring my ideas from a computer image and onto the actual race car itself. It was a painstaking task as I had never wrapped a vehicle before, and to do one with so many small pieces and constant edging was even more challenging (though the team helped a lot in that process)...not to mention the smallest detail of pin striping around the car.
After 3 days of work the car was finally complete and ready for its photo shoot. But there was another problem; I didn’t have any money to hire a professional photographer. Thankfully one of the team’s mechanics owned a fancy camera and agreed to bring it into the race shop on a Saturday. After a crash course in photography and then photo editing, I spent the day attempting to capture some nice images of the newly designed car.
I was extremely happy with the way everything turned out and very much looking forward to driving through Monaco in a race car that I had completely designed myself.
If you’re thinking all of this seems like a lot of work and doesn’t leave much time to prepare for actually driving the car in Monaco, you would be absolutely correct. During this time, all of my competition was preparing to drive while I was trying to put together money, then save my chance to race in Monaco and then designing a race car.
In fact, my teammate at the time was spending hours in the corner of the race shop on the race team’s simulator driving the Monaco circuit over and over again while I was busy trying to put sponsor decals on my car. In the 5 weeks between the previous Eurocup event and the Monaco race, most of my competition had been actively driving in other championships and doing private test days. I was clearly about to be jumping into the deep end from a competitive driving standpoint, but I didn’t care; I was ready to race in Monaco.
The Time Has Arrived
Climbing aboard the airplane heading to Nice, France, I was full of mixed emotions about everything that had already taken place and all that was about to happen. Finally my eyes were going to see Monaco for the first time and it was for the sole purpose of driving a race car through the streets.
On approach to Nice it was a special moment as the clouds parted and I could catch a brief glimpse of Monaco down below. I landed and found a cheap train ticket for the short trip into Monaco. Exiting the Monaco train station I was spit out into the sunlight, and once my eyes had adjusted to what was in front of me, I could see that I was standing directly at Turn 1 of the famous Monaco Grand Prix circuit. I had arrived!
I found a city bus that would take me to the far end of Monaco and the parking lot of the Monte Carlo Country Club where our cars would all be staged for the race weekend as the centre of Monaco is too packed for space to accommodate anything closer.
I arranged an extremely cheap room on AirBNB that was within a very short 5 minute walk down the hill to the country club’s parking lot. I would be sleeping in someone’s bed, in a 1 bedroom apartment, while he and his girlfriend slept on their kitchen floor. Awkward to say the least but I didn’t care as it was all I could afford and my mind was focused on other things anyway.
After months of unbelievably challenging work, impossible odds, dashes of sheer disappointment, and yet support from so many, I arrived into Monaco completely exhausted.
You would think that sleep at this moment would come quickly, but I knew very clearly what the next morning would bring. Like a child trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, the gift of the Monaco Grand Prix laid waiting.
As the sun rose along the French Riviera, sounds of the sea melodically hitting the rocks below, I climbed out of bed, gathered my things, and prepared to take the final few steps of a journey, years in the making.