IRL smoke clears

The IRL will run an event at the Edmonton Municipal Airport track this year. SUN MEDIA/Darryl Dyck

The IRL will run an event at the Edmonton Municipal Airport track this year. SUN MEDIA/Darryl Dyck

DEAN MCNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:55 AM ET

A month ago, when billionaire motorsports heir Tony George Jr. waved his chequebook like Cinderella's fairy godmother's wand and created a united open-wheel racing series out of smashed pumpkins, there were more questions than answers.

Like, would rabid Canadian fans of the former Champ Car World Series be robbed of invitations to the great unification ball?

It turns out the answer is yes and no for this year, but we can bring a date in 2009.

Although there hasn't been an official statement from anyone at the Indy Racing League office at the corner of Georgetown Rd. and 16th St. in Indianapolis, race fans in the Great White North should feel free to book airfare and hotels for Edmonton on the weekend of July 25-27 because there will be a Rexall Grand Prix of Edmonton in 2008.

But with the IRL season getting the green flag Saturday (March 29) at Homestead Miami Speedway, it looks as though anyone who wanted to attend the Grand Prix of Toronto will have to wait until next year when Michael Andretti and his Andretti-Green team should be ushering in a new era at the historic Exhibition Place temporary street course.

Just about everybody connected with the IRL is on message that while Edmonton will be the showcase for the series this year, the hope is that Andretti's bid to purchase the assets of the Grand Prix of Toronto goes through to keep open wheel racing's rich heritage alive in the eastern portion of this country.

And for good reason.

While it might be shocking news to fans of the traditional stick and ball sports, top-tier motorsports events have been king of the pro sports turnstiles since Formula One began trekking to Mosport International Raceway in the mid-1960s.

The largest single-day sporting event in Canada every year since has been the Canadian Grand Prix, now based at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

The Edmonton GP has been Alberta's biggest single-day sporting event, while the Toronto GP was Ontario's top draw since its first race in 1985.

So George and his associates would love to tap into that vein of popularity, not just because it's the right thing to do but because the kind of revenue and exposure these Canadian events generate will go a long way to putting the new IRL back on the track to success.

Even without Paul Tracy -- who has yet to sign a deal with the combined series -- IRL vice-president of public relations John Griffin believes there will be a star-studded grid in July in Edmonton this year.

"Right now, we are looking at 24 cars starting at Homestead," Griffin said. "And probably more after that. I think we can realistically say there will be at least 26 cars for the rest of the season."

Among the drivers will be Danica Patrick, who has been the poster child for the IRL the past two seasons, and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

Of course, there will be some familiar faces as well, with Justin Wilson, Graham Rahal and defending Edmonton GP winner Will Power.

It will be the drivers of the new, expanded series who, in fact, will be putting the pressure on to keep the Canadian content front and centre.

To a man, or woman in Patrick's case, the stars of the IRL can't wait to get back to racing before grandstands of knowledgeable fans.

"I think every time we go to Canada we get huge crowds and that's obviously exciting as a driver to be a part of that," Rahal, the rising star of the Newman-Haas-Lanigan team, said.

"For myself, you know, I'm really hoping to see Edmonton on the schedule. Last year, I finished third there in the Champ Car (race) and the year before was on the podium in Atlantic. I think that's a great circuit."

The 19-year-old son of Indycar legend Bobby Rahal said that Toronto has been a special place for him as well.

"I think Toronto certainly has been a very special part of the schedule every single year just from the standpoint that it has so much history behind it," he said. "I think it would be great for all of us to go back there. So hopefully we'll see that in '09."

Although veteran IRL driver Tony Kanaan never has raced in Edmonton, he has been part of the Molson Indy races in both Toronto and Vancouver and he said it's a must that the IRL keep the big Canadian events.

"From now on, we've got to put a big show like (in Edmonton), and be smart about the following years to pick up some of the races (like Toronto) with the Champ Car guys," the Brazil native said. "We can make a very nice and well-planned schedule to get as many people as we used to get in the past."

Wilson is champing at the bit to get back to Edmonton's Municipal Airport temporary street circuit with his new N-H-L team.

"It's a fantastic circuit, very demanding physically and mentally," the Brit said. "So I'm looking forward to going back there."

He also has a soft spot for the Toronto race.

"Toronto is where I got my first win in Champ Car," Wilson said. "It opens some special memories for myself. It would be great to see that back on the calendar."

There is still a huge amount of work to be done to get the merged series firing on all cylinders.

Of the Champ Car refugees -- N-H-L, KV Racing and Conquest Racing are confirmed for the new series -- none have any experience with the Honda-powered Dallara chassis used in the IRL.

Power thinks it's going to be a steep learning curve for the former Champ Car drivers.

"It's definitely going to be a tough road, for sure, having only one or two test days before we start racing in a car that we don't know and a new series," he said.

It would be a mistake, however, to count any of these guys out when the grid powers up March 29.


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