Toronto: Paul’s Sunday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on July 19, 2010 4:52 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

My, my, my… where to start?!

Since the first non-oval IZOD IndyCar Series event took place on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Florida on April 3, 2005, the battle cry from the “twisty-lovers” has been, “just try it!”

Okay — I’ve tried now.  My verdict?  I’ll be back!

The racing that I witnessed on Sunday, albeit only about 300 yards’ worth entering turn 3, was some of the best, most exciting action I’ve ever witnessed.  As the cars roar down Lake Shore Boulevard, the hard right-hander awaits them and challenges the drivers to give their best effort to either pass or avoid being passed.  This pressure caused more than a couple drivers to completely miss the turn or use another car as assistance.  Every time the field came through this section of the course, it seemed that one driver was trying to make a move.   We as fans held our breath each and every time.  I can only imagine what it was like in the cockpit.   Watching an IZOD IndyCar race from turn 3 at Toronto should be on every race fan’s bucket list.  I don’t care how much of an oval fan one might be — put this experience right alongside watching NHRA Nitro cars run at night.

Unfortunately, I also saw far too many of occurrences of boneheaded driving into turn 3 that resulted in carnage throughout the day.   The most egg-headed of the offenders was the driver of the #32 KV Racing Technologies machine, Mario Moraes.  Not only did Moraes take out his own teammate, and not only did he manage to put Mario Romancini into the wall, but upon exiting pit lane after a drive-through penalty (as a result of the Romancini incident), he found himself right amongst the leaders and broke up the fight at the front of the field.   Overall, it was just another bad day for Mario, who seems to have more bad days than good, though I admit they are not always of his own doing.

Sadly, Moraes was only one of a large group of drivers that found turn 3 too difficult to navigate cleanly 85 times.  Other offenders included Helio Castoneves, who simply ran right over the back of poor Vitor Meira; Graham Rahal, who did his best Carl Edwards impersonation by stuffing Ryan Briscoe into the wall instead of passing him cleanly; Paul Tracy, who found braking while passing Simona de Silvestro to be optional; Scott Dixon, who refused to accept the fact that Ryan Hunter-Reay had already cleared him upon entry; and even eventual winner Will Power thought Vitor Meira was going a bit too slow and gave him a bump.

Between the circus act in turn 3 and other incidents at turns 1, 5, and 8, the group of drivers that are supposed to represent the pinnacle of open-wheel racing in America looked more like a group of amateur wankers on display any given Saturday night at the local short track.   In fact, it got bad enough at one point that I received a text message in the middle of the race from a friend back home saying, “If I wanted to watch a crash-fest, I would have just watched ARCA.”  Ouch!  Nonetheless, once you got past all the boneheaded moves, the race was extremely entertaining.  Believe it or not, there was a ton of action on track that did not involve eight-wheeled turns and broken front wings.

One of the most exciting moments of the race in turn 3 was the first time Paul Tracy came through the area as the leader.  Granted, he was in the lead because of a pit sequence issue, but that didn’t stop everyone in the turn 3 grandstand from getting on their feet and cheering very loudly.  As Paul came through turn 3 for the first time under green flag as the leader, the crowd cheered even louder.  Unfortunately, that was when Helio fell asleep at the wheel and took himself out of the race, bringing out a full course caution.  A couple consecutive restarts later, Dario Franchitti was able to easily get around Tracy.   PT then faded to an otherwise unremarkable 13th place finish.  However, seeing the crowd reaction to Tracy leading the race explains why PT is so desperately needed in the field, particularly in the Canadian races.  He is a driver — perhaps the only driver — that many of the long time open-wheel fans can relate to or have an emotional attachment to. Love him or hate him, it’s never a bad situation when the crowd makes noise. It would be great if the American fans embraced a driver, any driver, like the Canadians do Paul Tracy. The closest comparison is Danica Patrick, but unfortunately, even her fractured fan base has seemed more apathetic this year (opinion as to why withheld).

Speaking of Danica Patrick, one of the knocks on her has always been that she lacks the aggressiveness to run up front with the “big boys.”  Say what you will, but that lack of aggressiveness brought her a very solid top-10 finish yesterday.  She didn’t just luck into that spot, either.  She qualified well, raced well, used her head all day long, and avoided costly mistakes; more than what the likes of Helio, Dixon, and Justin Wilson can say!  Kudos also goes to Simona de Silvestro.  Listening to her radio, Simona never really sounded comfortable with her car all weekend long, but the Team Stargate Worlds/HVM Racing crew continued to work with the car on each and every pit stop, and eventually Simona was able to soldier home with a career-best finish of ninth.   There is something to be said about simply completing a race.

Once again, Milka Duno was a complete embarrassment to the Series.  I don’t know the exact financial situation at Dale Coyne Racing, but it is no secret that the CITGO money from Milka is helping get Alex Lloyd’s car to the track week in and week out.  Nonetheless, now that the CEO of IndyCar, Randy Bernard, has weighed in on the subject and pronounced that Milka tarnishes the credibility of the Series, it’s time for something to be done.  There’s absolutely no excuse for any driver to be allowed to race when their practice times are below every one of the Firestone Indy Lights qualifiers.  The same friend that texted me about the crash-fest sent me another message earlier in the race asking if Milka had been parked because she could no longer maintain pace car speed. I chuckled when I read it and then nearly wept as I could not confirm that it wasn’t the truth.  The bottom line is that she is a blemish to IndyCar’s credibility and a danger to her fellow drivers.  Action needs to be taken — but like most situations, it just isn’t quite that simple.

As for the rest of the race, I don’t think anyone is surprised at the podium finishers from yesterday’s event.  Will Power may just be the best street course driver in the history of American open-wheel racing.  Throw away the name of the series — I don’t care which one you want to talk about.  I would, with 100% confidence, put Will Power alongside Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Nigel Mansell, Sebastian Bourdais, or anyone else you want to consider “The Greatest.”  Will has talents that have never before been seen in this country, and they have forced the other drivers to raise their game as well.  I don’t think there is any doubt that Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, and the rest of the group are better drivers today because of Will Power.

Unfortunately, Will’s greatest asset — driving the car right on and slightly beyond the ragged edge — leads to his demise on the ovals.  There is a finesse about oval racing that Will hasn’t quite handled yet.  He admitted as much in his post-race press conference.  Once Will figures out where 100% is on ovals and then learns how to only push at 105%, he will be a great oval racer.  I have no doubt.  It takes time, though.   Helio Castoneves told me in speaking about oval racing that experience and restraint are every bit as important as bravery and aggression.  When it finally clicks for Will, it could be lights-out for the competition.

I’ve been asked several times by followers if I enjoyed the street race experience and how it compares to an oval.  Unequivocally, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the street course experience — excuse me, the street circuit experience.  Granted, I have to admit that I had a hell of a host this weekend with my site co-editor, Steph Wallcraft, taking me under her wing.  Being a native Torontonian and a 20-year veteran of the race, Steph was able to help me understand not only the important intricacies of the street circuit “event” but also to make sure that I knew what to expect, where to expect it, and when it should happen. Having a tour guide like Steph, though not 100% essential to enjoying your rookie street event, will definitely help if you’ve never been to one before.

So, what made this street race different from a typical oval event?  First of all, it was packed with on-track action all three days.  At an oval, there might be one or two support series, but there is typically quite a bit of downtime at the track.  Not on a street course!  There were six series racing this weekend, so the track was literally in constant use from early in the morning until late in the afternoon.  To be honest, it may have been overkill if I was a paying customer trying to take it all in while still having time to enjoy the beer gardens, the food court and the Thunder Alley expo area.  You can probably never have too much action, though, and the schedule never did drag or fall behind.   That’s a good thing.

As a first-timer to the Toronto race specifically, I was quite impressed with the crowd on hand.  Yes, I realize it’s a fraction of what it was 15 years ago, but that’s just where we are right now.  Outside of the grandstands, the amount of people — or at least the density of people — seemed to exceed that of a typical oval event (Indianapolis and perhaps Iowa excluded).  No matter where I went, it seemed like a lot of people were already there.   That had to make the promoters happy. Though none of them are ready to label the event a resounding success at this point, it is good to see that they are in this for at least five years (this was year two of their contract), and they are aligning sponsors that will continue to support the event throughout.   The addition of the Ontario Honda Dealers is notable, as their sponsorship helps to offset the cost of Free Friday.   I would pretty confidently argue that you could take combined qualifying-day crowds at every oval on the IndyCar schedule (again, sans Indianapolis and Iowa) and likely not greatly exceed the crowd that showed up on each of Friday and Saturday.

I can see why the street-circuit theory could work.  However, I can also see why it would fail. Careful management is required to ensure that the financial side of these events leaves the promoters in the black.  There have been too many street circuits that have come and gone over the years because they never stopped hemorrhaging money.  Even the Toronto event in its heyday was a loser financially, according to Charlie Johnstone, VP of the Honda Indy Toronto.  I hope that Green Savoree Promotions are able to make this track work because it really needs to be on the schedule for years to come.

The layout of the track itself, from a fan’s standpoint, is terrific.  Having watched the race on TV for years, I knew the back straight was very long, so I assumed that the course was pretty big.  I assumed incorrectly.  (I suppose if I had thought about how big a 1.8-mile course could be, I probably would have concluded otherwise.)   The fact is that walking the course is very manageable.  I asked Steph beforehand whether walking this was going to compare more to Indianapolis, which takes quite some time to walk around, or Iowa, which can be covered in about three to five steps.  She told me to think slightly larger than Chicagoland.   Once again, she was dead-on.  I don’t think the Toronto course would literally fit within the bounds of the Chicagoland Speedway, but it definitely wouldn’t go much beyond the fences.  My point is that even at its furthest reaches, from turn 1 to turn 3, the track at Toronto’s Exhibition Place is very walkable.  It makes for a great fan facility.  More importantly, the paddock and the vendor areas are right in the middle, so you’re always pretty close to them, no matter where you are on the grounds.

Perhaps one legitimate gripe that I have concerns the start time of the race.  I have a strong suspicion that it was dictated by ABC/ESPN wanting the race to immediately follow the British Open.  That’s actually a really good idea (finally) from ESPN, but it just might be a bit early for those in the Toronto area actually attending the race.  The best way to get to the event is by using the mass transit system.  Neither the main subway system, nor the streetcar that actually runs to Exhibition Place, starts running until 9:00 on Sunday morning.  The Firestone Indy Lights warm-up session was at 8:00 and IndyCar warm-up was at 8:35.  Maybe I overestimate the number of people interested in the warm-up sessions, but if a majority of people don’t arrive until just an hour or two before the main event, that hurts the vendors and merchants on-site considerably. Maybe the decision-makers consider that to be a worthwhile trade-off to add perhaps a couple tenths of a rating point with lead-in from the British Open, but it’s definitely a factor that needs to be weighed from both sides.

The other suggestion I have for event organizers is to offer reserved seating on the outside of turn 3. The grandstand that I watched from is on the inside, and once the cars make the turn (roughly where the concrete patch is if you were watching on TV), the vast majority of the spectators there can no longer see the cars. But much of the action happens at the back end of turn 3 or on the run-up to turn 4.  Steph and I argued the logistics of offering such seating — there is currently a grassy hill there used for general admission seating, and a grandstand structure would need to be separated from the course by the other three lanes of Lake Shore Boulevard.  However, we both agreed that being able to see the entire view of turn 3 and into turn 4 would greatly enhance the experience and offer more action.  Depending on the height of the seating and the back straight fencing, fans would likely be able to see a substantial way down the backstretch as well.

Before I close, I want to remark about what a beautiful city Toronto is.  I remarked on Friday how much Toronto reminded me of Chicago, and it still does, but it definitely has a unique flavor (notice the lack of ‘u’, Steph!) of its own.  The transportation system there is truly light years ahead of what we have in the US.  The intricate network can get you anywhere you need to go efficiently and without a great deal of hassle (with the exception of the Sunday morning issue noted above).  If you get a chance to visit Toronto, I highly recommend you do so.  While you’re there, enjoy the local fare at some of the brew pubs that Toronto is known for.  Visit some of the shops on Yonge Street.  I would even recommend the Korean BBQ place that Steph drug me to — quite begrudgingly, I must admit.  Like any city of 2.5 million people, I’m sure there are sketchy areas to avoid, but by and large, what I saw of Toronto was a wonderful city that I look forward to visiting again.

Of course, I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t again thank Steph for showing me the ropes this weekend.  One main objective throughout this weekend, besides bringing our readers the best on-site coverage possible, was to get into and out of Canada without having a single Canadian look at me and think, “look at that stupid American tourist.”  I think I managed to accomplish that goal.  I don’t appear to have broken any major rules or offended any of the customs of our northern friends.  Steph graciously ensured that I wouldn’t look like a complete outsider by informing me that Strachan Avenue is actually pronounced “Strawn,” Yonge Street is pronounced “Young,” and that ordering a “soda” would probably get me a glass of plain carbonated water.  All in all, I consider that to be a successful first visit to Canada!

With that, I’ll put a bow on Planet-IRL’s coverage for the 2010 Honda Indy Toronto — kind of.  Be sure to check out our podcast this week as Steph and I discuss more of these points in detail and cover a number of other topics that we uncovered over the weekend that we haven’t yet reported on here.

Again, thank you all very much for your support.   I can confidently speak for Steph when I say that we thoroughly enjoy bringing you coverage of the events that we are able to attend and appreciate the kind words of encouragement and support that you send us via Facebook, Twitter, and here on the website.   Neither of us will be attending the Edmonton race next weekend, but Steph will be on-site again at Mid-Ohio to bring up-to-the-minute coverage of all the happenings there!

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