In its heyday, Indy fans used to come for the raw energy of speeding cars, the deafening roar of engines and screeching tires, the stench of gasoline and burned rubber.
In Toronto, that used to be considered fun. And in many cities — mostly in the car-racing crazy centres in the American Midwest — it still is.
But at Toronto’s once-premiere racing event, attendance over the years has steadily dropped, and holes in the grandstand seating this weekend mean this year is no different.
It seems the car racing just doesn’t draw crowds like it used to.
That’s especially true among the GTA’s shifting population, many of whom are environmentally conscious and would rather be doing something else.
Make that anything else, said David Silverberg, a 30-year-old Toronto resident and journalist who has no interest in seeing cars racing around a closed circuit.
“Toronto is bursting with arts and beautiful parks and summer sights and sounds,” Silverberg said in a Facebook chat. “The Indy is the furthest thing from an attractive afternoon.”
For many vendors, the lower attendance has spelled bad news. Tiny groups of beer drinkers at the Pickle Barrel beer gardens sat surrounded by a sea of empty tables Sunday, traditionally the busiest day of the weekend.
“I guess once the main race starts, all eyes are on the track,” says Lilia Gerchikov, a marketer with Pickle Barrel, clutching to an optimistic outlook, saying business was good and had picked up since last year.
In the meantime, many of the 14 servers staffing the beer garden’s dozens of tables stood idle, chatting amongst themselves. The business ordered about 24,000 tall cans beer, so Gerchikov was hoping beer drinkers would return after the main event.
In the exhibition inside the Direct Energy Building, a handful of vendors were hawking their wares inside a largely empty room. Global Sports Emporium set up a shop selling sports T-shirts, hats and even a child-sized racing suit.
A race attendee since 1993, Global employee Carla Martins blames the low attendance on lack of promotion and high ticket prices.
“I’d say (Saturday’s) attendance was pretty low. And are people spending? No,” she said.
Indeed, some blame the economy for what most fans agree is a less-than-bustling Indy.
Bradley Silverman, in town from Miami to visit family, goes to many NASCAR races each year and says car-racing fans aren’t averse to travel.
“I have friend who maybe would have come, but because of the economy, they aren’t,” he said.
For self-described hard-core fan Erik Hann, the race just hasn’t been the same since the last Molson-sponsored Indy in 2005.
But Charlie Johnstone, VP of the Honda Indy Toronto, says it’s not fair to compare Molson to Honda. The Molson-sponsored event did not make money, and that, he argued, was not sustainable.
The event planners now say they have a five-year plan, because “they knew it wasn’t going to come around overnight,” he says.
But that doesn’t help Len Kay, whose hot dog stand has seen little business the entire weekend.
“It’s been slow,” he says, flipping unsold hot dogs and optimistically piling them on the barbecue.
His family has four stands on the grounds, and it’s the same story everywhere. It’s too early to tell if they’ll come back next year, but the business makes significantly more money at other events held on the grounds.
Kay believes the slump is more than just the economy.
“To be honest, every year it’s dying off, slowly, slowly,” he says. “Years ago it was packed, every single day. But now, people aren’t interested in racing anymore. They want to watch soccer, or do something else.”
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