Toronto: Paul’s Friday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on July 16, 2010 6:04 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

The Drive:
The drive from Joliet to Toronto lasted exactly 12 hours, 13 if you include the time difference. Yes, it was a long drive — but in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t all that bad. As a friend said just a couple weeks ago, there is something quite therapeutic about a long drive by yourself. In terms of actual driving time, it really was only about eight hours. A handful of stops along the way and a couple hours of shut eye in a truck stop parking lot just beyond the Canadian border added the extra time to the trip.

After hearing horror stories lately about border crossings taking hours to complete, I figured it was best to hit the border sometime in the middle of the night when it would likely be pretty deserted. Mission accomplished. I crossed the bridge at Port Huron at 3:00 AM and cruised right on through. My only issue was getting chastised by the border crossing guard for not stopping far enough back from the car in front of me at the gate. He’ll get over it.

This is my first trip to the Great White North, so I was curious to see just how different things were going to be. Once into Canada, I quickly realized I couldn’t read about half of what I was seeing on all the signs — quite literally, actually. Most of the signs here are bilingual as a concession to the French-speaking people of Quebec. I didn’t figure it was a big deal, though, as I didn’t really need to know anything before getting to Toronto. Of bigger concern to me was that all of the speed limits were suddenly in kph, not mph. Unfortunately, the kph numbers on my speedometer are really too small and closely spaced to be of much use. Thankfully, my GPS worked just fine as my speedometer, and I was merrily on my way.

By the time I crossed the border, I had already been on the road for seven hours and was starting to get that awful falling-asleep-while-driving feeling. To make matters worse, the only truck for about a half hour (the only vehicle at ALL that I saw) nearly ran me off the road as it drifted across the dashes, a thick fog had descended on the highway, and a deer jumped up to the side of the road (though luckily didn’t hop out in front of me). I figured that was fate’s way of telling me it was time to call it quits, so I found the first truck stop I could, pulled into the darkest, most remote portion of the parking lot, and fell asleep within a matter of seconds.

A couple hours later, I woke up, the sun was out (though filtered still by a thick fog), and I felt slightly less tired than I did when I fell asleep. To make a longer story (slightly) shorter, suffice is to say that I made it to Toronto a couple hours later without any further issues. Traffic wasn’t bad until I got right near my office, which is near the airport and quite a ways from downtown.

Impressions of Canada:
So what are my initial impressions of Canada and, more specifically, Toronto? From what I’ve seen, if you’ve seen America, then you’ve seen Canada — or at least this part of Canada. If it wasn’t for the guy at the border who gave me lip for stopping too close to the car in front of me, I honestly wouldn’t have realized that I’d crossed into another country. The cars are the same, the names on the buildings are the same, the landscapes are the same, etc. Of course, little things like metric units everywhere and gas prices by the litre (which makes those prices of $1.10 significantly less attractive) do set Canada apart from its southern neighbor.

One thing that I have found interesting is the lack of Canadian flags on display. In the United States, you will find Old Glory everywhere as it is rare to walk an entire block without seeing a building displaying the American flag. On the contrary, I made it all the way here this morning (about a 45-50 minute trek — more on that later) without seeing a single Canadian flag. This has surprised me as the Canadians are known to be so fiercely patriotic and proud to differentiate themselves from their American brethren. Honestly, it reminds me of how the United States was prior to 9/11, when the Stars and Stripes were flown but in significantly smaller numbers than you will find today.

Impressions of Toronto:
In general, there is very little to differentiate Toronto from Large American City X. I have heard Toronto referred to previously as the “Chicago of Canada,” and I have seen little to this point to dispute that assertion. The portion of Toronto that I’m staying in is apparently referred to as “The Annex,” or at least that’s what Steph calls it. It appears to me that this is where people live when they are right out of college, poor, and want to live “in the city.” It is the type of area you would expect to find lots local coffee shops, organic fruit stands, and posters looking for people interested in making solo adult films (seriously, click here!!).

As I said earlier, it took a little while to get from my hotel to the track, but I think once I know what I’m doing tomorrow, I should be able to make the journey in 20-30 minutes pretty easily. The transportation system here, contrary to what Steph will tell you, is light years ahead of anything that can be found in Chicago. The network of subways, street cars, and buses seems to go most places that you really need to get to (with the notable exception of the airport), and all links so far have run frequently enough that getting where you need to go can be done quickly and efficiently. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave my car at my office near the airport and take mass transit into the city (saving myself $22/day parking at the hotel), and even this car-loving American doesn’t feel completely helpless getting around in a city like this. That’s a good thing.

As an aside, if you’re in the Toronto area and looking for the Asian district, I would suggest you check out Spadina Avenue. For about six blocks, there is nothing but Asian restaurants, grocery stores, doctors, lawyers, and who-knows-what-else. There must literally be 100 Chinese restaurants within a six-block strip along Spadina. It doesn’t seem to me that there are that many different ways to cook Kung Pao Chicken, but given that few, if any, of the stores looked new, there must be a market to sustain that many stores without saturation.

Impressions of the event:
This being my first-ever street race, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived. The first thing I noticed is that this track is more removed from downtown than I was expecting it to be. Even seeing it on a map beforehand, I never realized just how far out of the central business district this track is. One of the reasons people say street courses are beneficial to the fans is that they bring the racing to the people. Let me tell you, the people still have to come to this event. Granted, this is signficantly closer to “the people” than a track like Chicagoland Speedway, but it certainly isn’t disrupting the flow of people in the downtown area.

I was also curious what kind of promotion I would see for the event throughout the city. The short answer is “not much.” The might not be completely fair because I just got into town a day ago and haven’t explored that much of the city. That said, the only promotion I have thus far seen is a handful of street banners in the area downtown that hosted the IZOD Race to the Party last night. I haven’t seen any billboards or signs on the transit system to promote the event yet. The race didn’t even make the front of the newspaper that was at my hotel this morning (The Globe and Mail), though it did have mention on page 3 of the sports section. I realize it is only Friday, but I would have thought there would some mention on the front of the paper today. As I said, these are just my impressions over the course of two days, but there are things I thought I’d see that just aren’t here.

When I finally arrived at the track this morning, things seemed a bit less organized than I’m used to, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a result of the temporary nature of the facility. For a track that doesn’t exist most of the year, Green Savoree Promotions has done a very nice job making things not feel temporary. Once you actually get inside the track, things mostly run like they would at any other permanent facility.

Today was the free admission day at the track, so comparing the crowd this year to last might not necessarily be comparing apples to apples, but nonetheless, the crowd seemed to be pretty good to me. There were strong crowds of people in the pit side grandstands, the paddock area, the vendor region, and the beer garden. Lots of the folks here were with kids, too. It’s always nice to see a lot of youngsters enjoying a day at the track. It’s never too early to brainwash them, right?

Remember a few paragraph ago when I said that there isn’t that much difference between Toronto and Chicago?  One area that is very different is that they don’t look highly upon wandering the grounds with beer.  Actually, it seems to be severely frowned upon.  I finally learned that beer was confined to the beer gardens and not allowed outside.  Things like that just wouldn’t fly in the States.  That seems a bit strange to me, given the love affair that Canucks have with their beer.

Being an oval “expert” (for lack of a better word), there is a certainly rhythm of sounds and senses that you get used to. One thing you never want to hear on an oval is a driver dropping the throttle — it’s usually followed by the squealing of tires and the loud thump of a car hitting the wall. With that in mind, it took me several minutes of the first practice session today standing near turn one to not jump every time a car rolled out of the throttle, found a new gear, and navigated through the corner. Eventually I started to get used to it, but even in the second session, I occasionally found myself jumping when a car suddenly was not at full power.

Probably the biggest difference between today and what I am used to is the lack of track vision that you have at a street course. Steph explains to me that you have to find a place to watch that has the most action and then make sure you have a good view of a video board. That makes sense, but I am not a fan was going to an event only to end up watching it on the monitors. At nearly all oval races, Indianapolis excluded, you can see the entire track from pretty much everywhere. Even at Indianapolis, you can easily see a half-mile of track from anywhere. The difference here is that you might literally only see a car for a couple seconds before it is out of sight. Additionally, most of the seats are very low of the track. With only temporary stands, I’m not sure this can be avoided, but regardless, it definitely doesn’t help your view of the activities on track.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m complaining too much because I really did enjoy my first day on a street course.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the weekend plays out.  I haven’t even mentioned the on-track activity, but suffice it to say I’m excited that Ryan Hunter-Reay topped the speed charts today with Justin Wilson close behind.  Street courses certainly open the competition to many more drivers, so I expect a very exciting day tomorrow, culminating with qualifying and the Firestone Fast 6. Be sure to check out full coverage from both Steph and myself here at Planet-IRL.com.

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