Ready for the Green Flag

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The Honda Indy Toronto Marks the Beginning of a New Era

Rest easy Southern Ontario race fans, the wait is over. This summer marks the much-anticipated return of the sound of screaming engines, the smell of burnt rubber and the sight of brightly coloured open-wheel race cars tearing down Lakeshore Boulevard at 290 kilometres per hour (180 mph).
abbott-littlebigstart_optThat’s right- the Honda Indy Toronto (July 10-12) is back after a one-year absence, and if you were expecting the same event that Toronto has hosted in recent years, you will be in for a surprise. The difference should be viewed as a good thing for everyone concerned, from the race ownership group and sponsors to the teams and drivers, and most importantly, for the fans whom organizers hope will pack the grandstands on race day.

“The event is in significantly better form than it was,” enthused Charlie Johnstone, Vice-President and General Manager of the Honda Indy Toronto in an interview with PRN. “We’re going to have the winner of the Indy 500 on track for the first time since 2001, and the car count will be in the 22-24 range which hasn’t been the case in recent years. It’s going to have a completely different feel.”

No kidding.

Although the official souvenir program (produced by PRN) has detailed information and photos of every driver and car, many of the IndyCar Series racers competing at Toronto won’t need much of an introduction in order to be recognized by fans and media. Among the drivers that will be competing in Toronto are Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves, hot, young talents Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, Toronto’s Paul Tracy, and of course, the Series’ biggest star, Danica Patrick.

The new owners of the race, Andretti Green Toronto- a division of Andretti Green Racing, the successful IndyCar Series team co-owned by Michael Andretti- have gone to considerable lengths to revitalize a race that had lost some of its lustre in the final years of the CART/Champ Car era.

The Toronto race suffered in recent years, due in large part to the worsening health of the former Champ Car Series. A migration of teams, includinglatabbotttex5245_opt powerhouses such as Team Penske, Target Chip/Ganassi and Andretti Green to the rival Indy Racing League in the early 2000s robbed the race of a considerable amount of its star power and cache which eventually caused sponsors to leave and attendance to slide. By 2007, Champ Car’s final year, the starting grid featured a small field of mostly lesser-known drivers who raced in front of a smallish- by Toronto Indy standards- crowd.

Bankrupt, Champ Car ceased operations the following winter. The Toronto event then became the victim of a scheduling conflict following the IRL/Champ Car merger which, due to the last-minute nature of unification, forced the race to be cancelled when an alternate date couldn’t be worked out.

Many believed that the event would be revived, due to the IRL’s interest in the market and the race’s rich history. The resurrection began quickly, and was spearheaded by someone who has held Toronto in high regard since the first race.

abbott-andrettiosky_optMichael Andretti, winner at Toronto seven times and co-owner of Andretti Green Racing with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, lead the charge to bring the race back. Their experience in owning and operating a successful IndyCar Series event- the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which began in 2005- was undoubtedly a factor in the decision to take a look at buying the Toronto race.

Once the decision was made, things progressed quickly. The group signed a letter of intent to purchase the race’s assets from the old Grand Prix Association in March, the sale was finalized in mid-May and in September, Honda signed on to be the new title sponsor in a multi-year agreement.

Given Andretti’s unparalleled on-track success in Toronto, and his affection for the city, the decision to get involved with the race’s ownership and operation was fitting.

“From the first time we were up here in 1986 for the first race ... it felt special, everybody just seemed to be really supportive of us. You just felt that support right away and you felt that bond right away,” Andretti said during the press conference following the Honda announcement.

It is hard to overstate the importance of having Andretti Green involved in ownership when it comes to building the race’s vital business relationships. “It really speaks to the credibility of the whole organization. The confidence level is way up,” Johnstone said.

lat_levitt_09indy15518_optProof of the renewed interest in the event from a corporate perspective can be seen in the types of brands that have come on board as sponsors. In addition to Honda’s title sponsorship, the race has attracted an impressive roster of associate sponsors, including Budweiser, Schick, Dr. Pepper, Hooters and Delta Chelsea. “A tier-one brand attracts another,” Johnstone said when asked to explain the roster of readily recognizable names.

Not only has the race been able to attract big names as sponsors, but those partners are returning the favour with strong promotional efforts. A good example is Budweiser, the official beer supplier, which launched an on-can promotion (race event logo on the can), complete with point-of-purchase signage, across Ontario at the end of May. According to Johnstone, the race has not had on-can beer promotion since the race’s first year in 1986.

As this issue of PRN was preparing to go to press, the media campaign for the race was just beginning to pick up momentum, with print and television ads running more frequently from Honda, Schick and other sponsors. Johnstone said that as the race gets closer, Torontonians should expect to see event promotions at local bars (200 are planned), and evidence of a billboard campaign as well.

As for the event itself, the 11-turn 2.824 kilometre circuit (1.765 mile) configuration with the long back straight on Lakeshore Boulevard West will be kept intact.

On track, the racing menu reveals a bit of a departure from past years. Over the last few years, the Toronto race has featured an increasing numberMI1_2617_opt of other forms of motorsport alongside the open-wheel main attraction. This year, however, the focus will be squarely on the IndyCars, who will have the most track time by a wide margin, with two one-hour practice sessions on Friday, a one hour and 30 minute knock-out qualifying session on Saturday (the Firestone Fast Six), a 30 minute warm-up on Sunday morning and the two hour and 15 minute Honda Indy Toronto race on Sunday afternoon. The IndyCar feeder series, the Firestone Indy Lights will also have a decent share of track time, with two practice sessions plus qualifying on Friday prior to their final practice and race on Saturday.

The schedule also includes the Acura Sports Car Challenge for the Castrol Canadian Touring Car Championship. Their sessions will be spread out over the entire weekend with practice and qualifying on Friday, followed by races on Saturday and Sunday. Rounding out the on-track programming are the Vintage GT cars, which will practice on Friday before qualifying on Saturday and racing on Sunday.

Inside the facility, the layout will be a little different and more fan friendly, according to Johnstone. The team hospitality set-ups will be more accessible to the public than they have been in past years. Spectators will be able to walk through this area, to be located east of BMO Field, free of charge. Also new this year is Gasoline Alley. This area, located south of BMO Field, along Princes Boulevard will also be free with admission, although fans will need to purchase an IndyCar Series Paddock Pass for $40, if they want to get up close to the cars and team transporters, and perhaps, get a glimpse or two of their favourite driver. Fans will also be able to get a good view, free of charge, of the Firestone Indy Lights teams and drivers who will be paddocked outside in the neighbouring area.

latwebbtex0680_optAndretti Green is also well aware that fans want to have lots of attractions to check out during the event apart from racing. To that end, Budweiser is sponsoring the Winner’s Circle area featuring the Bud Big Rig and the Bud Girls. Elsewhere on site, the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Stage will feature live bands between on-track sessions throughout the weekend. Although the lineup of musical acts had not be been released at press time, Johnstone told PRN that the performers would be “name talent” that should be familiar to many spectators. The Pizza Pizza Family Zone and the Hooters Beer Garden are among other attractions of note.

All in all, the Honda Indy Toronto has the makings of an event worthy of its rich heritage that the city, the province and the country can rightly call a world class attraction. With a committed ownership group and title sponsor coinciding with the renewed interest in open-wheel racing in North America post-unification, the future of the event looks bright.

Will it be just like the glory days of the early years of the race? It will likely take a few years to ascend to those heights, but the potential for the event to grow in popularity and stature is enormous. As Johnstone told PRN, “It feels like we’re ready for another 20 year run.”

Given the way things have come together so far, another 20-year run looks like a distinct possibility.

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