Indy revving up

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:33 PM ET

For the 24th, almost consecutive summer, the streets of Toronto’s western waterfront will be transformed this week into a speed demon’s paradise.

The usual sounds of commuters making their way back and forth from their downtown concrete cubicles will be replaced by the high-pitched whine of 650 horsepower IZOD IndyCar Honda engines and the thundering roar of the 500 horsepower NASCAR Canadian Tire Series Dodges, Fords and Chevrolets.

When you throw in the remaining cacophony produced by the Castrol Canadian Touring Car Championship, the Indy Lights, the World Challenge GTs and the SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series, you have a racing enthusiast’s dream weekend.

The Honda Indy Toronto, as it is now known, has been the centre piece of this city’s summer sport calendar since the late Johnny Bassett convinced the then city councillors it would be a great idea to hold a downtown street race featuring cars that were capable of going 300 km/h along Lake Shore Blvd and through Exhibition Place.

Since that summer of 1986, millions and millions of fans have swarmed the Exhibition Place temporary street course to quench their need for speed.

The best drivers on the planet, including world champions Jacques Villeneuve, Emmerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, have left their tire marks on the 11-turn, 2.82-kilometre course.

All of that history was almost lost when, in 2008, Toronto was left off the calendar of the newly united Indy Racing League (the sanctioning body of the IndyCar series).

And when it was put back on in 2009, the new race owners — Andretti-Green Promotions — started over from scratch.

The enormous back log of goodwill that 23 straight successes had accumulated was pretty much depleted by the time the group opened the gates for last year’s return of the IndyCar series.

The race-day crowd — that more than once in its history reached more than 75,000 — was down dramatically from before the cancelled 2008 event.

And the new promoters admitted they had made mistakes, such as not allowing folks to bring in their own water. And when they did get in, they couldn’t find a place to buy any water on a day when temperatures soared into the mid-30s.

Loyalty tested

It was a lot of those little things that made many long-time ticket holders rethink their loyalties.

But this week, Honda Indy Toronto general manager Charlie Johnstone promises it will be different.

In several conversations and interviews over the past few months Johnstone has promised that the rookie mistakes of last year will not be repeated.

And the veteran racing executive admits those mistakes were costly.

“It created a lot of ill-will among some of our most fervent fans,” Johnstone said. “But we have been working day-in and day-out ever since to make sure those mistakes are not repeated.”

One of the biggest things Johnstone and his crew have done is to coax the stock car racing bosses in Canada to come back to Exhibition Place.

In its heyday, the old CASCAR Super Series was the big draw on the Saturday of race weekend. But when the Champ Car World Series took over promoting the event from Molsons, the stock cars were dropped and attendance on Saturdays fell precipitously.

This year, Johnstone helped negotiate a deal with the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series — CASCAR’s successor — to come back to headline on Saturday.

“Partnering with Canadian Tire has been among our primary aspirations since bringing the Indy back to Toronto,” Johnstone said.

It may prove to be move that put the Honda Indy Toronto back on the No. 1 spot as Ontario’s biggest summer sports event.


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