The difference, folks, is like night and day.
Last year, the atmosphere around this place felt like a few thousand friends hanging out and watching a car race together. This year, it feels like an event. And it’s only Friday!
Of course, it’s also Free Friday, which has unquestionably influenced the size of the crowd here today — but it’s impossible to look on that as a negative. This is a day of the weekend that’s typically had pretty dismal attendance at road and street tracks across the board in recent years. Seeing the paddock, beer gardens and Direct Energy Centre so packed with people wandering around and taking in IndyCar racing — many likely doing so for the first time, and many with young potential fans in tow — is extremely uplifting. If 10% of these people enjoyed what they saw today and decide to come back, it would significantly boost the atmosphere for the rest of the weekend. Fortunately, the two IICS practice sessions were quite active and saw Tag perform well, and Hinch finished at the top of the only FIL session of the day, so there was plenty to keep the local fan’s attention.
It’s also worth noting that many of the complaints that were raised after last year’s event, which was Green Savoree’s first kick at the can in Toronto, have been resolved handily. The variety in the types of concessions available is exponentially improved, and while coolers are still being turned away at the gate, there are plenty of places scattered around the track for fans to find free potable water, including some standalone units placed near the grandstands. The completion of the renovations in the Allstream Centre means that mobility between the Direct Energy Centre, the infield, and the pit lane is significantly improved. Overall, being here is just much less of an inconvenience than it was last year. (When an event’s profit margin and success are largely based on attracting people to it, this tends to be a good thing.)
Another thing this event has going for it is that this weekend’s on-track schedule is jam-packed. The advertising touted six series running this weekend, but in effect it’s only five: the IICS, FIL, the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, the Canadian Touring Cars and World Challenge/Trans Am (which are sharing the track for all sessions but their races). Still, the track is never empty for more than 20 minutes at a time all weekend. There’s great value to be had for the price of a ticket here this year.
Sponsor interest also seems higher this weekend than at most IICS events I’ve attended recently. Several big companies outside of the usual suspects have a significant presence, including Canadian Tire, Schick, and PepsiCo (which is pushing Dr. Pepper to the point of handing out free 750 mL bottles in the grandstand next to the turn they’re sponsoring).
I came away from today with the sense that the whole event seems to be on the upswing. Of course, it’s still early in the weekend — there’s more data to be gathered based on the number of attendees who are willing to pay to get through the door tomorrow and Sunday. Regardless, although I’d heard from several sources that promotional efforts were still not quite up to snuff for 2010, the evidence here seems to indicate otherwise. It’s time to sit back and see whether any of it will pay off.
Thus ends my Friday summary, which is approximately a third of the amount of information and opinion you’re about to receive from Paul. (I’m peeking over his shoulder as I type this. I’m pretty sure he’s writing a tome.) Today marks his first full day at a twisty track, in Toronto, and in Canada, so he’s got quite a bit more to report than I do. Keep an eye out for his review, which should be posted shortly.