INDIANAPOLIS -- Michael Andretti said yesterday that it was much more than just a business deal for him when he and his partners in Andretti Green Racing decided to take over the once-great Toronto Indy.
Andretti, who holds the record with seven wins at the summer festival of speed along Toronto's lakefront, said in an exclusive interview with Sun Media, that it saddened him when he saw that the race's former owners -- Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe -- appeared ready to let the event die after the unification of Champ Car and the Indy Racing League earlier this year.
"Toronto, for obvious reasons, is a very special race for me," he said over coffee at his team's Indianapolis Motor Speedway hospitality suite. "I always loved going to Toronto."
Andretti said that when he heard the former owners were willing to let the Toronto race go, he felt he had an obligation to try to rescue the event.
"I consider Toronto and the Long Beach (Calif.) Grand Prix to be the two races that changed the way people view open-wheel racing in North America," he said.
The 44-year-old son of racing legend Mario Andretti, said that together with his partners Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, AGR wants Toronto to be back among the most important race events on the racing calendar.
"We put together a great team, no different than putting together a racing team, that's been led by Kevin," he said. "We've come up with a great template that, if we stick to, we can be a success."
AGR took more than a few ideas from the heady days when the then Toronto Molson Indy was drawing upwards of 170,000 to the race and put them into place at the group's first venture into sports promotion -- the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersberg three years ago.
Now that race is among the best run and most successful on the IRL schedule.
"That's why we chose to jump at the opportunity, when it became available, to go after Toronto," he said. "We believe the potential there is four or five times bigger than St. Pete's just because of the market."
It's hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm that Andretti has when he talks about Toronto, but when he is reminded that over the past two seasons the race hasn't lived up to its reputation, he agrees.
"Are there things I would like to change? Of course there are," he said. "I think that the track as it's presently constituted around Exhibition Place needs some work."
But he emphatically denied he is even remotely contemplating moving the race to another location.
"I can't think of anywhere else that the race could be run," he said. "All we need is some work on the racing surface to make it smoother."
Andretti admitted that construction of BMO Field and other changes at Exhibition Place, will present a challenge to his group, but nothing that can't be overcome.
"We're excited about it. We feel it's very important for the series to be there," he said.
He said that the first order of business is to get corporate Canada back on side for the event.
"It is a marque event," he said. "I want it to be an event where corporations need to be there. That's what it once was and that is what it can be again."
What prevented the race from going ahead this season was a scheduling conflict with IRL's already established race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., but Andretti said he's certain he can work with the series to get Toronto its traditional July date in 2009.
"The (IRL) knows how important it is to get Toronto into the fold," he said.