Bring on the Indy elephants

Formula One driver Mark Weber walks past race fans on Ile Notre Dame Thursday during the Canadian...

Formula One driver Mark Weber walks past race fans on Ile Notre Dame Thursday during the Canadian Grand Prix's open-door day, a popular and successful innovation from the Montreal race organizers. (PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/QMI Agency)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:38 PM ET

MONTREAL - In New York, it’s the elephants.

Every spring the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus holds the elephant parade through the East Tunnel and down Fifth Avenue and East 34th street in Manhattan to Madison Square Garden.

In Edmonton, when the IndyCar Series circus returns July 22-24, the elephants will parade through town, too.

In auto racing, the elephants are the transporters.

Think “Mac,” Lightning McQueen’s transporter from the Disney-Pixar move Cars.

It’ll be what Francois Dumontier believes to be a first, an experiment the new Octane Motorsports Management team will try on the Thursday of race week at the 2011 Edmonton Indy. A contest will be held, he said, with winners being chosen to ride in the transporters to the track.

“The plan is to marshal all the transporter trucks out at Castrol Raceway by the international airport and parade them into the city, through downtown and out to the new City Centre Airport circuit,” Dumontier revealed here Thursday as what was once another first in the sport, played out in pit lane in front of him.

“We’re going to try it. Hopefully it’ll add a buzz and maybe become something of a tradition.

Every Thursday of race week for the Canadian Grand Prix Formula One race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the old Expo ‘67 site, they open the gates from nine to noon and parade people down pit row to view the race cars in their pits, interact with the teams, watch them and get autographs from the drivers.

“It’s an open-door day, an open house,” said Dumontier.

“It’s something we created in Montreal 14 or 15 years ago,” he said.

The problem with the Formula One circuit has long been the degree of secrecy involving teams and the lack of accessibility of the drivers. It goes back years to the Can-Am days, when international auto racing writers used to marvel at how drivers like Jackie Stewart were so accessible on the odd-numbered weeks when they competed in Can-Am races at places like Edmonton International Speedway, yet it was next to impossible to get near them at Formula 1 races in Europe.

“F1 has been accused of being away from their fans for years,” said Norman Prieur, the communication and strategy advisor Dumontier employs as his idea man.

“The free open-door day was invented in 1993 to bring our fans closer to the cars, teams and drivers,” he said.

“The teams have now become very co-operative. There were a lot of them doing pit-stop tire changes out there this (Thursday) morning.”

It’s worked so well, it’s become a Thursday event elsewhere.

“Other Formula One races are starting to do the same thing,” said Dumontier.

“Last year was the first time we added a driver autograph session. It’s added to it as well. Again, the drivers have been very good.”

The crowds are strong.

On Thursday, on a day which featured rain when the gate opened at 9 a.m., the parade of people, young and old, who took the subway to Ile Notre Dame to experience the scene, was estimated at a little over 15,000.

“There have been years when it has been as high as 30,000,” said Prieur.

Prieur said the event has not only worked to help bring the buzz to the race before the cars hit the track Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but doesn’t hurt from a business point of view, either.

“It’s the first time to sell programs and souvenirs and some of the concession stands are open. A lot of people who have tickets to the three days also come on Thursday because they want to experience the entire scene. There are a lot of dads who bring their kids. It created fans for the future, too.”

So, a. open door for the Edmonton Indy, too?

“No. That’s the big difference between Formula One and IndyCar. The IndyCar teams are pretty much accessible to everybody during the race weekend,” said Dumontier of the paddock area, the portable Gasoline Alley of the series.

“They already have autograph sessions. IndyCar has always been very open to their fans.”

But Dumontier wanted to create some sort of event for Edmonton for the Thursday of race week.

So bring on the elephants.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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