Fast Times In Toronto
When the green flag drops this weekend on the Honda Indy Toronto, it will be the latest edition of a fairly long history of IndyCar racing in Toronto. Before I get comments on an incorrect use of the term IndyCar…remember, I use the term IndyCar interchangeably between IRL, Champ Car, CART or USAC. Otherwise, it’s just too cumbersome. In fact, until 2006, the term "Indy" was used in the name of the race – the Molson Indy Toronto, even though it was sanctioned by Champ Car – go figure.
The first IndyCar race in the Toronto area was at Mosport International Raceway, just northeast of Toronto, in 1967. It was a USAC sanctioned event won by Bobby Unser in an Eagle, which marked the first IndyCar victory in his career. The following year, the race was won by legendary driver and car builder Dan Gurney, driving one of his own Eagles.
The race went on hiatus until returning for two more years with Molson sponsorship in 1977 and 1978, still at Mosport. Those two races were won by AJ Foyt and Danny Ongais, respectively. Following the 1978 race, there was no IndyCar race in the Toronto area until 1986.
It was then that CART began sanctioning a race around a temporary street circuit near downtown Toronto. They chose an area known as Exhibition Place, near the shore of Lake Ontario and home to the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), which is the equivalent of an annual late summer national fair in Canada. I have not been to the race, but I have been to Exhibition Place in the time frame between the race and the CNE. I’ve walked over parts of the track where you could still see some of the markings and the turns seem very tight. The area is very impressive, but looks a lot bigger on television than in person.
The first CART race was won by Bobby Rahal, driving the same Truesports Budweiser March Cosworth that he had driven to victory at the Indianapolis 500, just six weeks earlier. This was Rahal’s first victory since Indy and started a string of four out of six victories on his way to the 1986 championship.
The various winners at the current track at Exhibition Place have also included the legendary names of Emerson Fittipaldi (1987), Al Unser, Jr. (1988, 1990), Paul Tracy (1993, 2003), Dario Franchitti (1999) and more recently Justin Wilson (2005) and Will Power (2007). But the most dominant name in the history of this event is Michael Andretti.
Michael Andretti owned the streets of Toronto, winning seven times across the span of thirteen years — between 1989 and 2001. Generally, when Michael won – it wasn’t close. Most of his races in Toronto were snoozers, as he would absolutely dominate. Had he not been saddled with the under-performing Swift chassis or the sub-par Goodyear tires, in the late nineties…who knows how many more Toronto victories Michael Andretti would have piled up?
The track is fast, especially for a street circuit. The backstretch runs along Lakeshore Boulevard and is exceptionally quick. This tends to be a good passing zone for those that can get a good run coming off of the corner. The track layout has had a few minor tweaks over the years but is still pretty much the same layout at about 1.75 miles.
With all of its celebrated history, the darkest day at this track came in 1996 when rookie driver Jeff Krosnoff locked wheels with veteran driver Stephan Johansson. Krosnoff’s car went airborne, spinning wildly before hitting the barriers, a tree and even a street lamp. Krosnoff’s front wheel also struck a volunteer corner worker as the car was still airborne. Sadly, Krosnoff and the corner worker both sustained fatal injuries. Although not his fault, Johansson never quite got over the accident and retired from driving at the end of the season.
The venue continued to be a fixture on the CART/Champ Car schedule throughout all stages of the “split”. Toronto was once again was on the Champ car schedule for 2008, before unification occurred in February of that year. Scheduling conflicts between the two leagues caused the 2008 race to be cancelled. For the first time since 1985, the IndyCars would not run in Toronto.
A couple of months later, the track’s most dominant driver moved to preserve its history, when it was announced that Andretti-Green Racing would buy the assets of the Grand Prix of Toronto. AGR also owns the very successful street race at St. Petersburg, so this seemed like a natural fit. Soon afterwards, the league announced that after a one-year absence, the IndyCars would race again in Toronto beginning in 2009.
This is a win-win for everyone. I’m not a proponent of racing all over the world as Champ Car did in its last days, but I’m all in favor of several races in Canada. Most of the current team sponsors have some business dealings north of the border. Plus, there is a deep loyalty to open-wheel racing that probably now rivals its following in the US. Many great IndyCar drivers from the past and present hail from Canada including Greg Moore, Paul Tracy, Scott Goodyear, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani, Ross Bentley and of course, Indy 500 winner Jacques Villenueve.
I’m still not a huge fan of street racing and probably never will be. I love the natural terrain circuits like Watkins Glen and Road America. But for pure speed and excitement at a temporary street course, it doesn’t get much faster than the streets of Toronto at Exhibition Place.