The IZOD IndyCar Series heads north of the border this weekend to one of its premier events – the Honda Indy Toronto. Calling it a premier event is using a term that a PR or marketing guru might use in describing the event, but I would be lying if I said that it was one of my favorites. It’s not.
There is no logical explanation as to why it’s not. It probably should be. It draws well and brings very knowledgeable racing fans, and not just those looking for a party. It has speed. It’s one of the fastest street circuits on the schedule, featuring a long sweeping straightaway along Lake Shore Blvd. It has danger. Rookie driver Jeff Krosnoff was fatally injured on the last lap of the 1996 race. Bryan Herta was lucky to escape with only a broken pelvis after a horrifying practice crash there in 1994. The racing is decent. For a street course, there are some excellent passing zones. The setting is spectacular. It takes place on a tight 1.755 11-turn circuit at Exhibition Place; not far at all from beautiful downtown Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario.
The Honda Indy Toronto has history. Other than the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it is one of the oldest and longest lasting street courses in North America. It is one of the more prestigious sporting events in Canada and is one of the few races that is deemed worthy of coverage by ABC. Car count is generally high for the event, as most sponsors recognize the marketing opportunity available to them at such a high-profile race.
Yet, it has never been one of my favorite races. In fact, it has always secretly been one of my least favorites and I can’t even explain why. Maybe it’s the place in the schedule. It seems like it has always been late-June to mid-July, when IndyCar racing is not at its fever-pitch. The weather has been hot for a while with no end in sight. Indy is way in the rearview mirror and the championship is still too far off to think about.
But it’s got to be more than that. Maybe my overall dislike for street courses is too pervasive at this time of year. There seems to be an over-abundance of movable concrete barriers at Toronto. I’m sure it’s no more than what you find at Long Beach or St. Petersburg, but it seems like they are everywhere while forming what appears to be a very narrow track.
When I think about open-wheel racing in Toronto, my mind immediately goes back to absolute dominance by Michael Andretti in the early nineties. From 1989 to 1995, Michael Andretti won five times at Toronto en route to becoming a seven-time winner there. Michael owned Toronto the way Little Al owned Long Beach. Other notable winners include Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr., Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson and Will Power. With the addition of Paul Tracy to the grid this week, there will be four former winners of this event in the field this weekend.
Anyone who is driving a car that doesn’t have a big No.12 on the end-plate, was served notice two weeks ago that they need to bring their A-game every week through the end of the season. Will Power is serious about giving Roger Penske his first IZOD IndyCar championship since 2006, and only his second since he entered the series full-time back in 2002. It’s hard to fathom that an organization with pockets as deep as Team Penske is in their ninth full season and only has one championship to show for it. Power’s three starts at Toronto have produced finishes of seventh in 2006, first in 2007 and third in 2009. I wouldn’t bet against him.
His Penske teammates only have two starts at Toronto between them. Ryan Briscoe finished second to Dario Franchitti in last year’s race while Helio Castroneves tangled with Paul Tracy and took both of them out of the race. I look for Team Penske to win yet another pole and be a strong force all weekend.
The other usual suspects are the two Target cars. Last year’s winner, Dario Franchitti, has logged two wins at Toronto while Scott Dixon has a pair of fifth place finishes from his CART days along with a fourth place finish last year. Just like any other race, they have just as much chance of winning as any car from Team Penske.
From there, the contenders drop off quite a bit. All four Andretti-Green cars started seventeenth or worse last year at Toronto. They fared much better in the race with three cars finishing in the top-twelve with Danica Patrick finishing a team-high sixth. Conversely, the two Newman/Haas/Lanigan cars started third and seventh respectively, yet one finished dead last, while another finished twentieth in a twenty-three car field. Both teams have undergone name and ownership changes as well as a change in some driver lineups.
For all of Michael’s success at Toronto, I have a feeling that the Andretti Auitosport cars will all struggle this weekend. Graham Rahal returns to Newman/Haas this weekend to drive for his fourth team this season. While I don’t look for him to be a contender this weekend, this move could pay dividends late in the season. There is a lot of speculation on Graham’s future, but for now he has a five-race deal at Newman/ Haas with eight races left to run. Newman/Haas is struggling this season and having Graham Rahal back for even a handful of races is a win-win for all involved.
Tomas Scheckter is back in the revolving door that is the No.24 car. This car has seen a driver change every week since Mike Conway had his accident on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. It’s now Scheckter’s turn again. Although I don’t expect a lot from Scheckter, the same cannot be said for his teammate Justin Wilson. Wilson started fourth and finished fifth last year. It’s possible that he could steal a win this year, with a better team behind him.
If KV Racing Technologies can get through the weekend unscathed, it would be a first for the season. All of their drivers are fast, but lack discipline. Now Paul Tracy has been added to their stable. We’ll see if his “maturity” can bring some much needed consistency among their drivers.
One thing is certain this weekend…the narrow concrete confines will not be well suited for the driving (ahem) talents of Milka Duno. She actually finished the race two weeks ago at Watkins Glen, but it won’t happen at Toronto. Brian Barnhart needs to keep a close eye on her and be ready with the hook. Her lack of awareness on such a narrow and fast circuit as Toronto could have dire consequences.
So, who’s going to win? I won’t be going very far out on a limb this week. When it’s all said and done, I think that the driver standing at the top of the podium on Sunday, will once again be Will Power. He’s just that good.