Honda Indy Toronto Preview

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Alex Tagliani admits there is a difference and it is meaningful.

The only full-time Canadian-born driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series told PRN in a recent interview that a victory on Canadian soil would be a little more special, and with stops in Toronto and Edmonton coming up, it’s an opportunity the Montreal native aims to take full advantage of.

"My best result in Toronto was second place (in 2001) and for me it was almost like a win, so yeah, I'm coming here to win. I want to win the Canadian races and I think we have the team to do it this year,” he said when asked about the thought of winning at home.

Tagliani has qualified well and run up front for much of 2010. Now he just needs the results to go with those efforts.

Not that winning either race will be a walk in the park. While there is still a fairly pronounced gap between the haves and have-nots on the ovals, the road and street circuits have tended to be great levelers for the smaller teams in the Indy Car paddock. No matter how small the team is or how much they might have struggled on the stretch of recently completed ovals, all believe better results are possible now that they’ll get to turn left and right for a while.

Given the depth of the field that the Honda Indy Toronto will likely have (25-26 cars are expected to take the green flag), Tagliani will be in tough to be the highest finishing Canadian, what with Paul Tracy ready to resume his spot in a fourth KV Racing Technology entry.

Tagliani is keenly aware, however, of the challenges of racing and winning on the road and street circuits. The 37 year-old CART and Champ Car veteran spent most of his career competing on non-ovals, during which time he recorded a win, four poles and 29 top fives in eight full seasons from 2000-07. He transitioned into the IZOD IndyCar Series on a part-time basis with Conquest Racing in 2008-09, before becoming part owner and driver this season for his own outfit, FAZZT Race Team.

Tagliani confers with his team at Barber Motorsports Park earlier this year.

Tagliani’s no. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Honda-powered Dallara has shown impressive pace on both road courses and ovals this season (four top tens in nine starts), but has yet to produce the sorts of results that are reflective of the team’s potential and its strength in qualifying. At this writing, Tagliani’s best finish this season was a sixth place result at the temporary street circuit in St. Petersburg, Florida in late March.

"We were setting our expectations a little bit lower in regards to the ovals. The road courses- obviously, qualifying on the front row in Brazil, sixth in St. Petersburg- we felt that we were a little more in the ballpark [with setups]. But obviously now I'm much more excited about the team because I think we're complete, I think we're not going to be able to always say we're going to win every race, but we're a lot closer in every type of course," Tagliani said.

"I think what I attribute this particular success to is the chemistry of the team. There's no ego with the engineers. When they have to work within a budget for the development of the car, they're not trying to spend whatever they want," he said.

Last year Tagliani qualified fifth at Toronto and lead the race for a total of 21 laps before the final round of pit stops shuffled him back to ninth where he would finish.

Dario Franchitti went on to take the checkered flag for his second Toronto victory.

The Toronto race should be another hotly contested affair, what with 25-26 cars fighting for position on the tight confines of the bumpy 2.824 kilometre (1.755 mile) street circuit running through Exhibition Place along Lakeshore Boulevard.

Although the Indy cars will be the main attraction again this year, Green Savoree Promotions, the race’s owners, have really beefed up the on-track schedule.

In addition to the return of the Indy car feeder series, Firestone Indy Lights, the Honda Indy Toronto will also feature the SCCA Trans-Am Series, World Challenge, the Castrol Canadian Touring Car Championship and, for the first time, the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series.

Recognizing that the on-track content might have been a little thin in 2009, Green Savoree has decided to go big this year.

“I think coming out of last year’s race we took a lot of feedback from the fans, some positive and some where we could do a better job. One of the key points that we set down was how do we put the absolute best racing action on the track as possible,” said Honda Indy Toronto Vice President and General Manager Charlie Johnstone.

The greater ambitions for this years event extends beyond the track too, as organizers attempt to increase the value proposition for attendees.

One of the biggest new initiatives this year is to open the track to the public, free of charge, on Friday of race weekend, which organizers now refer to as ‘free Friday’.

Sponsored by the Ontario Honda Dealers Association, Johnstone said the promotion is vital to Green Savoree’s efforts to expand the race’s appeal beyond a traditional motorsport audience.

“I think people don’t realize how cool, sexy and exciting it really is down here. They see it on TV but it doesn’t translate as well. So being able to come down and check out the action, I think will open up a lot of eyes, and [you’ll] have people come down who maybe just want to check out a world class event. They may not be huge motorsport fans, but this isn’t just about motorsport this is about the whole event,” he said.

The presence of clothing label IZOD as Indy car title sponsor should also have a positive impact on the race’s public perception, and help to restore some of its lost prestige and lustre.

“I think IZOD wants to take the race into downtown – it’s not just about what happens at the track,” Johnstone remarked.

Given IZOD’s willingness to spend on pricey print, online and television campaigns since signing on last November – like buying air time on US television during the NFL playoffs last winter and creating a glitzy online website racetotheparty.com, with contests and drivers in slickly produced commercials – the Honda Indy Toronto should benefit from the increased visibility.

On-site Johnstone and company will be working their hardest to engage spectators with a combination of entertainment and a full menu of racing.

“It’s all about other entertainment, whether it’s Beer Gardens throughout the site, live entertainment or interactive exhibits with the sponsors. But it’s also about the paddocks, being able to walk up and touch the cars, and see Danica Patrick or Paul Tracy zip by on a motor scooter,” he said.

On track the event will, once again, benefit from one unified open-wheel series that brings together all of the star power the IZOD IndyCar Series can muster.

“We put on a bigger show now, and you have bigger names, more recognizable names, including the Indy 500 winner. The general fan recognizes those names and name recognition is important,” Johnstone said.

Names are indeed important, and even if most casual fans only recognize a handful of the drivers, like Tagliani and Tracy, the heavily marketed Danica or Castroneves (thanks to his appearance on Dancing With the Stars), it has to be considered progress from the mostly anonymous faces in the final Champ Car races prior to unification.

And while it might be a little premature to say the glory years are back, the race seems to have a new sense of vitality.

It’s a start.

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