Monday, August 20, 2012

Confessions of a NASCAR rookie at his very first race

Since NASCAR arrived with great fanfare in Montreal five years ago, I basically relegated myself to the outdoor street festivities that took place on Crescent Street, Montreal's party central, and immersed myself with admiring the NASCAR autos on display, listening to the free concerts, collecting the free swag and taking pictures with some hot, comely models who were there on behalf of Ford Racing. Basically, I took in the festivities, but I never attended the actual race at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.

That was until this past weekend, and I have to thank the State of Florida for that.

About a week ago, I got an invitation to attend a NASCAR media event at the Circuit on race day, August 18, that was hosted by, the state's official website that promotes Florida tourism, and the attractions, restaurants, hotels and events that the Sunshine State has to offer throughout the year. Being a frequent visitor to South and Central Florida on a regular basis (and enjoyed every visit), and curious to experience the phenomenon that is NASCAR racing both on the track and in the paddock, I enthusiastically my RSVPed my attendance for my very first NASCAR race.

And what is's connection to one of the most popular spectator sports in America? Well, besides the fact that two Florida locales host NASCAR races (Daytona and Miami), the website also sponsors two Mazda cars that race on NASCAR's Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series (one of them is pictured below). They are part of the Dempsey Racing team, which is run by actor Patrick Dempsey (best known as Dr. McDreamy from the popular ABC series "Grey's Anatomy"), who is himself a NASCAR driver for five years running. Unfortunately, Dempsey himself wasn't able to attend the Grand-Am race here at the Napa Auto Parts 200 series, because he was behind the wheel at the Road America race.

So I made my way early Saturday morning to the Circuit with many of the NASCAR faithful from across North America. I somehow felt out of place, because I was one of the few attendees not decked out in a NASCAR team jersey, t-shirt or pit cap. As I made my way to the Mazda Hospitality Area at the paddock, I was immediately immersed into the world of NASCAR. There were crews surrounding both cars, doing last minute repairs, maintenance and testing to these complex, mechanically sophisticated souped up driving machines for the race that would begin at 11:15 that morning. The paddock of each team was represented by a long, rectangular metal trailer displaying their respective colors and sponsors, with a vertical banner waving in the breeze in front of each paddock trumpeting how many racing championships the team in question has won. And there were no shortage of fans wandering around, enthusiastically taking photos of the Grand-Am cars as they were being wheeled out of the paddock on their way to the track, or with themselves and the drivers.

The representatives from treated myself and the other members of the media who were present at the hospitality area with open arms, as they introduced us to the two sets of NASCAR crews who would be racing their cars at the upcoming Grand-Am. The drivers -- Tom Long, Scott Maxwell, Charles Putman and Charles Espenlaub -- were very cordial and were equally passionate about their careers as NASCAR drivers. The common denominators that each driver said to us were how special the Montreal fans are, and how unique the track at the Circuit is, which is unlike the type of track they are used to racing on the NASCAR circuit.

"This is one of the most educated crowds we have seen and they make the race special for us. We love coming here," said Maxwell, a native of Toronto. "And we like the track here because it involves a lot of heavy braking and passing."

And on the subject of autos and Florida, the reps told us about a recently opened museum dedicated to classic cars. The Dezer Collection Automobile Musuem in North Miami features a diverse collection of 1,200 classic cars of all makes from all eras, including cars of Hollywood stars, rare cars and vintage autos from the U.S. and Europe. And for all of you James Bond fans -- in time for the release of the upcoming Bond thriller "Skyfall" -- the museum also has an exhibit that features some of the best known cars, planes and boats that were driven by 007 throughout 50 years of his screen adventures.

By 11 a.m., our gracious hosts escorted us to our seats in the stands by one of those perilous turns on the Circuit (and second row from the safety barriers) to witness the two sponsored Mazda autos participate in the Rolex Grand-Am Series race. First order of business as we got to our seats was to put on the ear plugs that were provided in the media swag bags that were given to us (which I am doing pictured below). I had an idea that the engines on a NASCAR auto were quite loud (which was quite evident during engine tests that were conducted at the paddock before the race), but I never knew how eardrum-popping loud it could get when these cars were making their way around the track at a terrifying, furious speed. And believe me, those ear plugs were an essential tool for a two-hour, 74-lap race. Although Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas of Chip Ganassi crossed the checkered flag to take the Grand-Am race this year, the two cars helped provide an exciting race that certainly got my adrenaline pumping and fulfilled that need for speed.

I have to admit that my first NASCAR racing experience was everything that I it expected to be. And what I found so amazing was how many people this race attracts every year in Montreal, and how its drivers and pit crews are so accessible to its many fans. That was evident when I decided to stick around after the race and check out the carnival atmosphere around the Circuit, which doubled as a fan fair. There were BMX motorcycle demonstrations, autograph sessions, photo ops and plenty of souvenir kiosks, where fans where eagerly snatching up all sorts of NASCAR team merchandise (the most popular were that of drivers Patrick Carpentier, Andrew Ranger and Danica Patrick, in her Chevy). I left just before the main Nationwide Series race was about to begin. But before making the trek back to the Metro, I caught the introduction of the drivers who were paraded around the track in Dodge pickup trucks. The driver who got the loudest and most enthusiastic response? You guessed it ... Danica Patrick!

It was quite a full day for this NASCAR rookie. Next year, I will be back at the Circuit. This time, wearing my racing colors.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"WIcked" a bewitching experience in the land of Oz before Dorothy arrived

I've been familiar with "The Wizard of Oz" since I was a kid. I watched the movie everytime it aired on TV (before the days of VCRs, VHS and DVDs, it was regarded as a highly-anticipated TV event that always got high ratings). In fact, I even played the Scarecrow when my camp group staged the play when I attended Green Acres Day Camp back in 1973. Even without reading the series of Oz books by L. Frank Baum, I couldn't imagine how far they could take the story of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard of Oz -- from Kansas to the Emerald City and back -- to another level.

That's where "Wicked" comes in.

Based on the best selling novel by Gregory Maguire, "Wicked" made its Broadway debut in 2003 and quickly became a smash hit, garnering three Tony Awards (including the coveted Best Musical award). It also gained a lot of critical acclaim, and has been heralded as one of the best Broadway musicals in a very long time. With its national and international touring companies included, "Wicked" has been seen by over 30 million people around the world.

"Wicked" is sort-of like a prequel to the Wizard of Oz. It begins at the point where the 1939 movie ends ... when the Wicked Witch of the West meets her demise thanks to some water that was thrown at her by Dorothy. Glinda, the Good Witch of the East, meets up with a group of Munchkins afterwards, and explains to them the unlikely friendship between her and Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West. The show then flashbacks to the first day at Shizz Academy, where Glinda (whose actual name is "Galinda") is a new student, and Elphaba is there to watch out for her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, by request of their father, who is the current governor of Munchkinland. However, Elphaba is different from the rest of the students at the school; she was born with emerald green skin, which makes her an object of fear and derision amongst her fellow students. Somehow, by accident, Galinda agrees to be her roommate. Through her bubbly optimism, she teaches Elphaba that she too is a beautiful person, and she can be popular in her own right.

Elphaba has her own ambition, which is to meet the venerable Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City, and learn to use her unusual powers in a positive manner. But somehow, through a misunderstanding during that audience with the Wizard, strange forces turn Elphaba's intentions into evil, and transforms herself into the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Wicked" overall is a magical theatrical experience. The sets are visually dazzling and looks like they come alive from the pages of Maguire's (and Baum's) novels. And for mavens of the Oz movie, you get to see the unlikely origins of many of the elements of Oz, from the flying monkeys, to why the Wicked Witch wears her pointy black hat, to the beginnings of such characters as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. As well, it gives a moral lesson to the age-old expression "opposites attract", the power of friendship and how not to judge others by their outward appearances.

The performances by the entire cast are strong, especially the two leads Christine Dwyer (Elphaba) and Jeanna De Waal (Galinda), who use the right amount of humour and drama to express the message that "Wicked" effectively conveys (which is why -- understandably -- they received a loud, thunderous ovation during the curtain call). And for the two showstopper musical numbers; "Defying Gravity" will leave you amazed, and "For Good" will leave you in tears.

After seeing "Wicked", I can easily understand what the excitement was all about for this genuine Broadway blockbuster. It certainly defines the new face of American musical theatre, and a offers an entertaining, bewitching night in that wonderful land they call Oz.

And for those who want to catch "Wicked" during the remainder of its run at Place des Arts until August 26, take note. A day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of orchestra seats will be held for the production. Two and one-half hours prior to each performance, people who present themselves at the Place des Arts box office will have their names placed in a lottery drum; thirty minutes later, names will be drawn for a limited number of orchestra seats at $25 each (to be paid in cash only).  This lottery is available only in-person at the box office, with a limit of two tickets per person.  Lottery participants must have a valid photo ID when submitting their entry form, if chosen, when purchasing tickets.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Two Star Trek captains, Malcolm McDowell and the Batmobile (circa 1989) making its way to Montreal Comiccon 2012

While enjoying a week off from my day job at the English Montreal School Board (and at the same time, winding down from a whirlwind 17 days at the Just For Laughs fest), I decided to spend my afternoon of the first day of August at the Terrasses Bonsecours in the Old Port. It wasn't to enjoy a sunny summer day or the cool breezes from the mighty St. Lawrence River, but to immerse myself in a fantastic world of comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and animation.

In short, it was the press conference to officially announce this year's Montreal Comiccon, which is taking place at the Palais de Congres from Sept. 14-16.

Personally speaking, I grew up an avid reader of Mad magazine and Batman comics (especially those 100-page special issues with reprints of 1940s and 50s Batman stories ... all for 60 cents!) back in the 70s. I didn't continue my interest in them as I graduated from high school. However, when I attended last year's Montreal Comiccon, seeing all those booths with tons of books, comic books, magazines (and lots of old issues of Mad) for sale, not to mention seminars, panel discussions and autograph sessions with pop culture stars past and present (including Adam West and Burt Ward from the 1960s ABC "Batman" series -- along with their 1966 vintage Batmobile), needless to say my interest was immediately sparked again ... not to mention countless happy memories in front of the TV and the local newsstand suddenly resurfacing.

So when I found out the line-up of personalities appearing at this year's Comiccon, I knew this was another event I must attend and cover for my column.  To make things more interesting for those members of the local media who were present at the press conference (and create a great deal of buzz), Comiccon organizers brought out a whole parade of sci-fi, comic book and fantasy characters ... C-3PO, Star Wars storm troopers, Poison Ivy, and even the Incredible Hulk, not to mention a couple of lovely ladies dressed in skin-tight latex Star Trek costumes. Even Kristen Hager, one of the stars of the TV series "Being Human" made an appearance at the press conference to promote her Comiccon appearance (pictured below).

Organizers also announced a very special event that will take place on the evening of Sept. 15. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", two generations of Star Trek captains -- William Shatner and Patrick Stewart -- will appear together to talk about their own memories onboard the deck of the Enterprise (I guess that explains the Star Trek lovelies; Trekkers ... get your Vulcan ears ready and set your phasers to stun).

Along with Hager, Montreal Commiccon will also feature appearances by these personalities: actor Malcolm McDowell (here's a person whom I would pay to meet and get his autograph ... I would like to discuss the days of how he practiced the old ultraviolence as my favorite droogie Alex in "A Clockwork Orange"); Star Trek: TNG alumni Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton will also share their Trek memories; Adam Baldwin ("Full Metal Jacket"); Davis Blair (them man behind Dire Straits' iconic "Money For Nothing" video); "Hellboy" creator Mike Mignola; Quebec cartoonist Mike Rabagliati (author of the popular series of "Paul" books that are huge bestsellers in Quebec; my favorite is "Paul Gets A Summer Job"); Gunnar Hansen, who starred as Leatherface in the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; and Lloyd Kaufman, the man behind the cult film studio Troma Entertainment (remember "The Toxic Avenger" and "Surf Nazis Must Die"?). And for those who like their pop culture on four wheels, Comiccon will have on display the Batmobile from the 1989 Batman movie, the car from "Starsky and Hutch" and the famous "Mystery Machine" van used by Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and company to help solve all those mysteries (I wonder if it will show the compartment where they stored all those Scooby Snacks?!?).

Based on the overwhelming success of last year's Montreal Comiccon (which prompted the move to the much larger Palais de Congres and the addition of one extra day), it is helpful advice to say that you should get your tickets now (and arrive at the Comiccon site early). That way, you will get your fill of childhood memories, favorite characters and make those additions to your respective collections. No doubt about it, Montreal Comiccon will promise three days of sheer, unadulterated fun (and this time, I will be expanding my 1960s Mad magazine collection).

For more information, go to www.montrealcomiccon,com.