For the better part of 15 years, Toronto was one of the true treasures for open wheel racing.
Canadians flocked to Exhibition Place to cheer for Paul Tracy, Greg Moore, Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani. Molson Brewery promoted “the Indy” like nobody in the states with and banners, billboards and commercials everywhere. There were also street parties and it became one of Canada’s largest sporting events.
That was the heyday of CART but by the time Champ Car was winding down in the middle of the last decade so were the crowds as well as the enthusiasm. In 2008, the year IRL and Champ Car unified, there was no longer a race in Canada’s largest city.
Michael Andretti, Kevin Savoree and Kim Green took a flyer and became the promoters five years ago and it was good to be back but the event lacked people and presence.
Until this year when Green and Savoree hit a winner.
Thanks to Rogers SportsNet, Charlie Johnstone, Honda of Canada, the Ontario Honda dealers, Randy Bernard and James Hinchcliffe it looked like the good, old days last weekend.
The Honda Indy Toronto had a good turnout Friday on free day, a nice gathering on Saturday and a damn good crowd on Sunday.
It wasn’t an early ‘90s throng but the attendance was estimated at 35,000 by veteran Toronto motorsports writer Norris McDonald for Race 2 and there were easily 80,00 for the weekend.
Before he got the bum’s rush, Bernard dumped TSN for Rogers and the SportsNet folks spared no expense in promoting the hell out of this doubleheader the past six months. Johnstone pulled everything together, Honda sponsored the Friday for the Make A Wish Foundation and Hinchcliffe won three races and got his countrymen excited about Indy cars again.
“I don’t have the final numbers but the weekend was a huge success,” said Savoree, who also promotes St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio along with Green. “It was fairly obvious the growth was substantial.”
“Concessions were up 50 percent, Honda’s checkered flag donations went from $35,000 to $57,000 on Friday and it was by far the biggest crowds we’ve seen in our five years.”
Bernard, who instituted the doubleheaders at Detroit, Toronto and Houston, predicted that Rogers would be a tremendous partner when he signed the deal and the SportsNet boys gave IndyCar the 5-star treatment and promotion seldom seen nowadays.
“Charlie also did a great job of converting festival goers into race fans, Honda was big and Rogers is a fabulous partner,” continued Savoree. “The fans are so passionate up here and they loved the standing start and having two races.
“The whole event had a great feel to it.”
When the original standing start on Saturday was aborted the paying customers booed lustily (as they should have) and Green and Savoree lobbied for another chance on Sunday (which Derrick Walker wisely granted).
The only real downer of the weekend was when Hinch’s car broke down on the grid Sunday and by the time he joined the race The Mayor was three laps down.
But there was little doubt where Savoree stands when IndyCar discusses the 2014 schedule.
“I know it’s a big challenge to the drivers and teams to have doubleheaders but it worked in a big way in Toronto,” he said. “We’re trying to grow this sport and we’re partners with IndyCar and this was good for both of us.
“So I wouldn’t think it would be a very long discussion.”