[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on July 12, 2013.]
James Hinchcliffe grew up blocks away from Lake Shore Boulevard, the thoroughfare that runs for more than 100 kilometres in the Greater Toronto Area. Raised in Oakville, Hinchcliffe, like many civilians, would cruise down the road and itch to accelerate past the speed limit, which could be as low as 50 kilometres per hour in some stretches. This weekend, he’ll be paid to floor it on that same road — a turn of events that makes him chuckle.
“It’s funny blasting down Lake Shore Boulevard in an IndyCar at 250 kilometres an hour, rather than 50. It’s fun to say, ‘Take that, OPP,’” said the race-car driver, raising a fist playfully while thinking of the Ontario Provincial Police radar guns.
Hinchcliffe will be among 24 drivers zipping 1,900-pound race cars through the street course in Toronto on Saturday and Sunday. The Honda Indy is one of three events in 2013 to feature two races in one weekend on the Izod IndyCar Series. The race series has added second races in Detroit, Houston and Toronto to increase ticket sales and take advantage of the festival atmosphere in those cities.
Having dubbed the doubleheader “2 in TO,” race organizers were forced to hold their collective breath this past week as record rainfall flooded parts of the city, including Lake Shore Boulevard. But Honda Indy president Charlie Johnstone said the event was fortunate to see no damage to the venue. “Like everyone else, we were shocked by what happened and how fast it happened, but everything held up the way it was supposed to hold up,” Johnstone said of the course that blocks off one of the city’s most active commuter routes during Indy week each year. He pointed out that the event and the city were lucky that the rain occurred on Monday night, before any of the less-secure vendor and sponsor tents were put into place.
With the two races, he expects the Indy could top the $50 million in economic impact that it provided the city in 2012. There’s also the added benefit of more global media attention, with the races being broadcast in 200 countries. The race on Saturday will be the first time in the history of the racing series that a standing start will commence the chase for the checkered flag. Formula One races feature standing starts, where cars rev up before the green signal is given and then shift into drive. IndyCar races have traditionally begun with cars rolling forward to a start line, maintaining their pre-determined position until the green flag is waved. After changes were made to the manufacturing of cars used in the series last year, standing starts became possible for IndyCar and many race fans will be curious to see how the drivers adjust to the change. Sunday’s race will feature a rolling start.
For casual race fans, the 2 in TO format may seem confusing. If someone only wants to go to one race, which should they attend?
Both races offer the potential for thrills. IndyCar rookie driver Tristan Vautier of France said he was nervous during his first standing start, which took place last year in a minor-league racing series. Meanwhile, Josef Newgarden, a second-year driver from Tennessee, said the two-race weekend in Detroit in June featured more collisions on the Sunday. “I thought it would be a lot more difficult physically than it was to race on back-to-back days, but it turned out that it was on the mental side that you had to watch out for,” he said about the first of the two-race weekends. “In Detroit, it was the second race where people were making mistakes and guys were bumping into each other and running into walls.”
Even though no onlooker wants to see a driver get hurt, those collisions are part of the attraction of high-speed racing for many fans. Toronto also poses other challenges for drivers, because of the technical aspects of the course, Newgarden and Hinchcliffe said.
“Driving in it is a big challenge. It’s a tricky course here in Toronto, but the challenge is what makes it fun for the drivers. We don’t want something that’s simple,” said Hinchcliffe, who has won three of 11 IndyCar races this year and ranks fifth in the overall points standings. Now living in Indianapolis, home of the Indy 500, Hinchcliffe is excited to be back home, saying he appreciates Toronto and its inclusiveness since he has left the area. This weekend, the 2011 IndyCar Rookie of the Year will be among the favourites on a track he grew up adoring.
“The reason I wanted to be a race-car driver was because of this race. I remember coming here as a kid and thinking how awesome it would be to be behind the wheel of one of those cars,” he said during a media event on Thursday organized by his sponsor, GoDaddy.
The IndyCar series doesn’t announce attendance figures, an indication that those numbers aren’t anything to boast about. News reports estimated that last year’s race drew 25,000 fans. This year, there are expectations the numbers could be significantly higher. The economy is stronger, the two-race format has gained lots of publicity, and the marketers have smartly piggybacked on the number of other festivals happening in the city this weekend, including a craft beer fest that will feature two beer gardens on the grounds of Exhibition Place. With Hinchcliffe’s ascension to bona fide star status, Johnstone thinks the Indy will gain more attention from fans and media.
“It’s always outstanding to have Canadian content. It’s good for national pride and it’s good for a youngster to come out here and see a guy like James or Alex Tagliani, another Canadian in the race, and get to know the sport. These drivers are heroes to these kids,” he said.