If the star of the last racing weekend was the NASCAR series, we still heard many oohs and ahhs resonate at the Grand Prix Trois-Rivières (GP3R) where a racer with autism, a stand-up comic, and an Australian rubbed their Nissan Micra tires.
Well, we have to admit: if we have heard so many exclamations from the grandstands surrounding the tri-fluvian circuit, it is because the small four-cylinder engines (no more than 109 hp) did not shriek like the V8s in the stock cars and, therefore, weren’t concealing the clamour of the crowd.
In these 7th and 8th rounds of the Nissan Micra Cup third season, however, the excitement was not measured by the performance of the engines, but rather the number of contacts between bumpers and (very small) wheels, missed corners and runway exits.
The excitement was also at its height on the sidelines of the 2.43 km circuit, in the area reserved by Nissan Canada to welcome its twenty participating teams. Check out our Grand Prix Trois-Rivières photo gallery to see how the mechanics had a lot to do on the subcompact Japanese cars which, even before this second half of the season, displayed a lot of war wounds.
This Formula 1-like microcosm is shared by roughly thirty drivers who, despite the juvenile status of the monotype series, breathe rivalry and treat the competition with utmost seriousness. Among them are three competitors we would like to present to you as our podium champions: the hilarious humorist-comedian Michel Barrette from Lac St-Jean, the tenacious Keishi Ayukai from Australia, and the incredible Austin Riley, from Uxbridge, Ontario.
Michel Barrette, the Mario Andretti of Quebec
First up, our pick for third place: Michel Barrette, whom we can consider as the Mario Andretti of Quebec. The humorist-comedian – who celebrated his 60th birthday last spring and who will mark 35 years in his career (in comedy) in the coming spring – is one of the biggest automobile fans in La Belle Province. Is it just pure coincidence that his first memories as a racing spectator are from the 1970s at the Circuit de Trois-Rivières?
Until now, television and movie engagements have prevented this Bleuet du Lac St-Jean from taking part in any car series.
It was no longer the case this year.
Despite being his first time out, Michel Barrette did not do things by halves: not only did he buy himself “a steering wheel” in the Nissan Micra Cup, but he competed in it with his two sons, Nicholas and Martin.
Merely recalling the emotions that overwhelmed him when he found himself on the track with his offspring, makes him well up in tears. (Very sensitive, this Michel Barrette.)
Very sensitive, and generous for those admirers who did not hesitate to ask him for an autograph here, or for a photo there. Even on the starting grid, in the few minutes of concentration before the battle, he remained friendly and mugged for the cameras pushed under his nose – beginning with ours.
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After the first race of the weekend, while all the competitors went for a well-deserved rest, the humorist didn’t. Rather, he presented a bit of his comedy show to his fans, young and old, on the stage set up by Nissan Canada on the bank of the St. Lawrence River. Kevin Bazinet, winner of the 2015 season of La Voix (The Voice), was the other personality invited by the automaker, who wanted to prove to the whole Trois-Rivières crowd its huge seriousness for the (physically tiny) Micra.
Keishi Ayukai – everything for the race, even sleeping on the floor
Our runner up: Keishi Ayukai, a 30-year-old driver originally from Japan, who’s lived almost his entire life in Australia.
Until last spring, Keishi lead a well-sorted existence in Brisbane: family, girlfriend, work as a personal trainer, business development consultant, and so on.
But last year, he participated in the GT Nissan Academy and though he didn’t win the competition outright, he put on a good show. Then someone whispered in his ear about the Nissan Micra Cup in Canada, the only one of its kind in the whole world.
Keishi needed no further encouragement to retrieve $30,000 in savings from the bank account, leave everything behind and take off for the other side of the world.
The Australian landed last May at Mirabel’s ICAR race track, just in time for driver-orientation day. With two-thirds of the money he had in his pocket, he bought himself “a steering wheel”, secured the transport services of a team; and then used his big, apparently perpetual smile to negotiate here and there for a place to sleep. “At the moment, I sleep on a mattress in the living room of a student friend in Lachine, near Montreal,” he confided to us.
Leading up to Trois-Rivières last weekend, prospects were good for Keishi Ayukai with a beautiful fifth place in the overall standings – alongside podium regulars Kevin King, Olivier Bédard, Xavier Coupal, and Valérie Limoges.
Keishi himself took the third step in his first race at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, then brushed the winning platform four times with subsequent fourth, fourth, fifth and sixth place finishes.
However, the tri-fluvian event was much less successful for Keishi: wrong choice of tires, contacts with an increasingly aggressive competition, kissing the wall... Not only were his 14th place Saturday and 15th place Sunday his worst results of the season, but his car suffered heavily as well.
To make things worse: there’s not a dollar left of his original $30,000 for the next four rounds: two at Mosport on Labour Day weekend, and two at Mont-Tremblant (September 21–24).
Registration and transportation alone cost $6,000 – which he’s trying to collect via his Facebook. Looking to announce your sponsorship alongside the kangaroo that adorns his Nissan Micra?
Hats off to Austin Riley – and his family
Our winner: Austin Riley and his family. Austin hails from Uxbridge, Ontario, he celebrated his 18th birthday last spring, and he’s Autistic.
Austin is diagnosed on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He only needs to watch a movie once to be able to recite the dialogue, line by line. He has no concept of time, and does not grasp emotions or sarcasm – yet he shows a sharp sense of humour.
And of course, his brain runs at 200 km/h.
Austin has always been passionate about cars. His first word was not “mom” or “dad”, but “Ferrari”. He’s been honing his racing skills since he was seven years old on the kart track. (Not so long ago, he was even faster on a wet track than Lance Stroll, which earned him the nickname... “Rain Man”.)
Like many teenagers, Austin dreams of becoming an F1 driver. But no one really believed that he would one day go on a raceway in something other than a go-kart. Now, thanks to Groupe Touchette Pirelli and Azure Racing, he’s spending his summer on the Nissan Micra Cup grid.
At the wheel of the Nissan Micra he christened Lizzie – “because it was the name of my first go-kart, so it has to be the name of my first race car” – Austin has completed seven of the eight races, fighting tough battles and settling in mid-pack.
This is the first time that Austin is participating in a monotype series. But if our research is correct, it is also the first time in the whole world that a driver with autism is authorized to compete in a FIA-sanctioned event (represented here by Auto Sport Quebec).
Certainly, Austin would like to stand on the Nissan podium; he still has four chances to do so this season. But even without a Micra Cup trophy, the fact remains that motor racing emerged, for the young autistic, as the ultimate reinforcement to achieve even greater victories: those of everyday life.
Thus, Austin now manages to fasten the strap of his protective helmet by himself – a considerable feat for someone, lacking fine motor skills, still can’t tie his shoelaces.
“Austin shouldn’t be able to accomplish all the things he does, but he does because his passion for cars and racing goes beyond his handicap,” say his parents, Jason and Jennifer Riley.
They, along with his sister and cousin who follow Austin on every event, bring to the racetracks where they spending their weekends a message of awareness and hope for other children with the same neurodevelopmental disorder. You can view the details of this mission – and discover the young driver’s fan club at: www.racingwithautism.com
Upcoming Micra Cup races – free for Nissan owners!
The next Nissan Micra Cup rendezvous is set for the Labour Day long weekend, at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario.
Which one of the Japanese subcompacts will survive the difficult Turn 2, one of the most dangerous of America with its blind curve and its wrong-way camber?
The 2017 Championship will end at Circuit Mont-Tremblant the weekend of September 21–24 –and remember: Nissan vehicle owners are entitled to passes for these events, they only have to register!