Toronto: Pre-race track walk

IndyCar commentary — By on June 27, 2011 8:44 am
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Since my daughter was born, I’ve always been happy to find an excuse to take a long walk — particularly now that the weather is nice and we can be outdoors longer. With the Honda Indy Toronto now less than two weeks away and changes in the catch fencing and the grandstand layout piquing curiosity, I was more than happy to oblige when asked if I could head over to Exhibition Place to see how the track build is progressing. So, on this pleasant Sunday afternoon, I set the baby up in her stroller and wandered over to nose around.

There are two possible routes from our waterfront apartment to the grounds. I chose the slightly longer but far more scenic route through Coronation Park. It features lake views and large, twisting trees planted in 1937 to honor Canada’s war veterans of the time. Even factoring in a stop to pick up a Dr Pepper slushie (you know you love on-the-sly mentions for INDYCAR sponsors), the trip still probably only took a half hour at most.

When I reached the other end of the park, I was greeted by Princes’ Gate. The City of Toronto has been doing restoration work on the Gate for quite a while now, and it appears that it’s still ongoing. It must be getting close to completion, though — there’s significantly less scaffolding around it than there was when I last walked past here about a week ago.

The catch fencing has been installed around the inside of turn 2 and the sidewalk is therefore blocked off on that side, so I had to detour back through the park a little to get around to a place where I could cross the road at a break in the fence.

But it’s sort of hard to complain about a detour when this is the view on the way.

I snapped this picture of the backstretch as I was crossing Lakeshore Boulevard to get to the sidewalk on the infield side. The road is currently in use and will stay open until immediately before the opening day of race weekend. In fact, some less-than-competent Toronto drivers have already used their passenger cars to scuff up the new concrete in spots. Also of note: on the right side of this picture, the first few panels of the catch fencing on the infield side have been installed backwards. Whoops — busted! I imagine that’ll be fixed by the next time we see this view.

The harsh winters and resulting extremes in Toronto weather are very hard on city streets, and the track is showing it as usual. Among other issues all around the track, there are a few particularly nasty potholes along Lakeshore. While it’s possible that Green Savoree has some sort of arrangement with the City I’m not privy to, it’s more likely that these won’t be patched in time for the event given how road repair projects usually operate. If the potholes remain, it’ll make for an interesting dance by the drivers to dodge the worst of it.

One of the things I was looking for in the new catch fencing was to see whether water flow had been improved somehow since that’s been a major factor in delaying street events several times over the last couple of seasons. In this respect, the new fencing doesn’t seem to offer any upgrade — unless there’s something underneath that can’t be seen from above, the same two rectangular holes at the bottom of the concrete are the only drainage feature. The roads around here are crowned quite heavily to divert water off the asphalt surface after heavy rains and snow thaws, so water flows from the middle of the road (where the outside catch fencing sits) down toward the curb — which, as you can see, is butted right against the concrete with no room provided for drainage whatsoever (in fact, water flow to the sewers is impeded by the position of the blocks). It’s a shame that nothing could be done to improve this with the new fencing system since a heavy downpour on race weekend will leave with just as many delays due to standing water as in the past.

This picture was taken from the far outside of turn 3 — from about where the start of the run-off area would be — looking in toward it. This is one spot where the road surface actually looks pretty good. It’s worth pointing out, though, that there’s a surface change here from asphalt to concrete, which is just one of the features that makes this one of the most interesting turns on the INDYCAR calendar.

My walk had a dramatic moment here. I made it most of the way along Lakeshore without issue (although the “sidewalk” was… well, let’s just say it’s clearly not intended for frequent pedestrian traffic). But when I hit the inside of 3, the sidewalk stopped and there was no break in the fencing nearby. I didn’t win any parenting awards for the maneuver I had to pull to get the stroller up over the concrete and down the other side, but we came away unscathed. There was no way I was walking all the way back — that backstretch is long!

This picture was taken from the exact same spot as the last one, just pivoted to show the exit of the turn and up into 4. Here’s another interesting feature of turn 3, and it’s one that I’ve always felt is difficult to demonstrate on television: there’s actually a bit of an elevation change here. That makes things extra fun when transitioning back onto the asphalt off the exit of the turn.

When I arrived at turn 5, I found a section of the track where the old and new fencing were laid out together as I faced toward turn 6. Interestingly, the concrete blocks on the new segments are about a foot taller than on the old ones, but the old fencing actually stands a foot or two taller in spite of the shorter blocks. The new fencing is clearly more sturdy, though — a vastly needed improvement.

Around this spot is where I began to realize that something was a bit fishy. When I came on this scene, I thought for a moment that maybe the old fencing was still up from last year and that it would be taken down and replaced with the new stuff over the next couple of weeks. But as I kept walking, it dawned on me that all of the fencing has to be taken down every year before the Canadian National Exhibition at the end of August, so the old fencing must have been put back up through here deliberately. And then, as I continued to look around, I realized that the old fencing was already installed in all the areas that will see less pedestrian traffic on race weekend — through part of turn 5, all of the 6-7 complex, and most of the way to turn 8. To cut costs, it makes a bit of sense to leave the areas with fewer on-site onlookers, but those parts of the track will still have the ugly, rusted-out fencing on TV. And if the Canadian government ponied up $700,000 to refit three-quarters of a racetrack, I’ll be (unsurprised but still) pretty annoyed. Perhaps this is a project with phases and the rest of the track will be done for next year. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

I had a patriotic moment as I walked past this spot and needed to share. This lovely fountain features prominently in the layout of Exhibition Place, but on race weekend it’s generally hidden behind catch fencing in an area that sees very little foot traffic.

This is the segment between turns 6 and 7. When I was a teenager, I used to sit in the grandstand that was here because it was the only weekend ticket I could afford. The area is looking pretty delapidated these days. Maybe someday this event will return to its former grandeur and we’ll see a more vibrant scene here again. It’s nice to dream.

Here, I’m standing more or less at the apex of turn 8. There’s another surface change here, and some of the patching that’s been done in the past is looking pretty rough. It can be noted here that the painting of the track surfaces hasn’t been completed yet. We’re also back to the new catch fencing. (There aren’t any grandstands here, but most people entering the grounds via public transit walk in behind the fencing that can be seen in this picture, so this was a very important section to fix up for appearances.)

Here’s turn 9. Most of the new fencing appeared to be installed from behind here at turn 8 around almost as far as turn 1. Turn 9 is one that a few people have identified as getting pretty rough over the past couple of years.

And here’s a closer look at the reason why. This sorry excuse for a patch job will come loose by the end of the day on Friday. It occurred to me today that it’s a pretty sad situation when Saõ Paulo repaves its entire track with top-of-the-line asphalt after hosting one event while Toronto has never done it in 25 runnings. Like the area around the Sambadrome (and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, and any number of other examples), Exhibition Place is a fairground that sees very little vehicular traffic throughout most of the year. It wouldn’t be a chore at all to shut down the roads within the facility in stages to lay down a better racing surface, and it would be easy to keep in decent shape and well worth the investment given the money that must get spent constantly on patch work. (Lakeshore Boulevard, of course, would be a much more difficult proposition.) However, that would also require an up-front investment from someone, and at this stage it’s possible that we should be happy just to have a race at all. That being said, track resurfacing should definitely be high on the list of improvements to undertake as soon as is reasonable.

From turn 10, here’s a view of turn 11 and the entrance to pit lane. This is what an unfinished pedestrian overpass looks like. Speaking of things that are rusted-out and ugly… but this one gets covered in banners and does its job, so replacing this isn’t as important as many of the other potential improvements.

And here’s the view from turn 11 down the frontstretch. Absolutely picturesque — in stark contrast to the view from between turns 6 and 7. (I’m still annoyed with the people who built those condo buildings there and interfered with this vista.)

People keep asking about the Dr Pepper grandstand. I believe that’s this one, though there’s another grandstand being built right next to it that might be the Dr Pepper one. Either way, the other one wasn’t yet assembled enough to bother taking a picture of it, but it looked as though it was going to be about the same size as this one.

As far as the other grandstands go, the pit straight grandstands on either side looked to be more or less the same as last year, as was the turn 9-10 grandstand. These two pit-in grandstands looked a little bigger to me, and the Thunder Alley grandstand looked significantly bigger. What this says to me is that demand for seats at the higher price points is about the same, but there’s increased interest in lower-cost seating. This is a good thing. It means that the die-hards are still coming but that new people have sussed the event out — possibly even on Free Friday last year — and are willing to dip their toes in a bit more. With a little more time, perhaps we’ll see those people start to take even more interest and make bigger commitments for the more expensive seats.

The gold grandstands are in place but haven’t yet been completed.

This is very encouraging to see: infrastructure for a new block of corporate boxes on the outside of the track near the west end of the Direct Energy Centre. This is in addition to the same number of boxes as in previous years already in place on the infield side of pit lane.

For some reason, I thought I remembered more silver grandstands than this last year, but it’s possible that they just haven’t been built yet.

Do you think the team that selects this pit stall is going to be annoyed?

They probably won’t be as annoyed as the drivers will be when they come across these collection booths at pit exit! I had a good laugh at this one.

Here’s the current state of turn 1. It looks as though the track build through here can’t be completed until the work on Princes’ Gate is finished. That might be making a few people nervous. Again, there’s a surface change through here from asphalt to concrete and back, though it isn’t easy to see in this photo.

There’s also this pesky sewer grate right at the apex of turn 1. Note that it hasn’t been welded back down yet, which I assume means that all the manhole covers around the circuit also haven’t been (though I confess that I didn’t think to check, but it’s safe to think they would all be done at once). It’s yet another item still on the to-do list.

And here’s the current state of turn 2. The outside fencing here is also waiting for the work to finish on Princes’ Gate. The very last segment will go up across Lakeshore Boulevard after it closes right before race weekend.

I’ll admit to being a bit surprised at how much is left to do with only two weeks remaining until the event. I’d be concerned were it not for the fact that this has already been done 24 times before without a hitch. Fortunately, the Exhibition Place staff know the drill, and so there’s no reason to believe this year will be any different.

Our walk around the grounds finished up with a return to Coronation Park for a picnic lunch under the trees. (Well, I picnicked — the baby just pulled up all of the grass within arm’s reach.) It was a lovely afternoon that left me very excited at the realization that my home race is the next event on the schedule! Keep checking in with More Front Wing over the upcoming days for news, views, and other coverage of the Honda Indy Toronto.

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