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Honda Indy can thank Randy Bernard for its success

Published July 14, 2013

The people who run the Honda Indy Toronto – the Savoree-Green racing organization and Honda Canada – have one person to thank for this weekend’s huge success: Randy Bernard.

Bernard was the IndyCar CEO who made the decision to take the series’ Canadian TV contract to Rogers Sportsnet and it was a brilliant move.

TSN has held the contracts for big league international motorsport, going back years. Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar were TSN staples. But TSN rarely promoted racing. In fact, if anything, it sometimes de-emphasized it.

Once, it had a 30-minute pre-race program for F1 featuring Vic Rauter in the studio and Gerald Donaldson reporting from race tracks around the world. They cancelled that show years ago and have made do since with a five-minute lead-in from a foreign broadcaster.

And not all IndyCar races were shown live.

Bernard, who was fired last October, had his flaws but he did some things very well and listening to fans was one of them. Canadian IndyCar followers let him know loud and clear that they were fed up with TSN and so he spearheaded the move to Sportsnet.

Now, the Honda Indy Toronto, despite declarations to the contrary from organizers, has been a shadow of its former self ever since it was revived by Michael Andretti in 2009. Attendance on some race days resembled a BMO Stadium soccer crowd: 20,000 – if that.

But this weekend (although event management once again declined to issue  an official attendance figure) saw a large crowd (I suggest 35,000-plus) gather at Exhibition Place that, in a lot of ways, was reminiscent of the glory days of the Molson Indy in the long distant past.

The corporate suites were all full, as were the grandstands, and what was really encouraging was that the general admission areas were packed. The two races didn’t hurt, either.

What turned things around? Rogers Sportsnet’s non-stop promotion of this racing weekend going back several months. TV commercials about the race were played daily. Rogers radio stations talked up the race almost non-stop.

The most popular – or one of the most popular – afternoon drive programs in the Toronto area, Bob McCown’s Prime Time Sports show, featured lengthy interviews with Toronto Indy CEO Charlie Johnstone and James Hinchcliffe.

I just about drove off the Gardiner while going home one afternoon when McCown talked on and on about how exciting the IndyCar race from Brazil had been. Being a listener, I’m well aware that McCown has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of most sports but I never took him to be a race fan.

Who knew?

Or maybe he was under orders. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. It worked. The Rogers push on radio and TV was in large part responsible for making this weekend’s races a huge success.

So, thank you Randy Bernard. And on behalf of all the IndyCar racing fans in Canada, I wish you the all the best in your future endeavours. If there’s anything we can ever do for you, please let us know. We owe ya.

Wheels corresponent Stephanie Wallcraft writes good stuff (if you missed her feature on IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter in Saturday’s Toronto Star Wheels section, you can find it online at wheels.ca). She’s also a hard worker.

She caught up with Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe yesterday and he let her know in no uncertain terms that he is not a fan of double-header weekends. Said Hinch:

“I don’t think anybody likes them. Scott Dixon gets 100 points. How come we don’t have two races at Iowa (where Hinchcliffe not only won but dominated in much the same way the Target Chip Ganassi driver did in Toronto this weekend)? That would have been awesome for us.

“You have to have double-headers at all of them or none of them. I’ve said that since they announced these things. It’s not a fair way to do it. We as a team didn’t have particularly strong cars here, and we get penalized twice as much. And we’re going to go to Houston, and somebody’s going to nail it and have a really good day. It’s unfortunate that that’s how it works.

” Nobody in the series will ever warm up to these. They’re too hard on the drivers, they’re too hard on the teams. You get so little practice, it’s so tough to get the car set up right.”

Hinchcliffe being Hinchcliffe, however, he is the consumate professional when it comes to marketing and public relations. So, after venting, he added this:

“But if we can fill grandstands on Saturday and Sunday, then we’re going to do them because as much as we might not like it, it’s not about us. We can complain all we want, but at the end of the day it’s up to the people buying tickets and watching at home, and if that’s what they want then we’ve got to find a way to make it work.”

OTHER WEEKEND RACING:

Robert (Robbie) Wickens, of Guelph and Toronto, won his first German Touring Car Series race at Norisring in Germany on Sunday following his first pole in the series. He actually finished second but winner Mattias Ekstrom was disqualified because his crew filled the pockets of his racing suit with water in parc ferme. Why they did that, I have no idea.

Wickens was one of four Mercedes drivers in the points. Following the race, he said this:

“My first DTM victory, even though I’ve had to wait to get the result confirmed, I am, of course, thrilled to bits. Nevertheless, it was a close-fought race. There were two safety car periods, and we changed strategy after the second safety car phase, which my team and I thought would be good tactics.

“I started from pole, was in 14th place for a time and ultimately won the race. It was a tough race, but I overtook a few cars and enjoyed the feeling. Congratulations to our team: Four drivers in the points is a good team result.”

Brian Vickers won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire on Sunday. Kyle Busch was second, Jeff Burton third, Brad Keselowski fourth and Aric Almirola fifth.

And Scott Steckly of Milverton won the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series race at Vernon, B.C., on Saturday night. Jason Hathaway of Dutton, Ont., finished second and James White of Kamloops was third.

Finally, at the Honda Indy Toronto on Sunday, there were 23 grid girls and one grid guy (see photo). Simona De Silvestro, the only woman driver in the IndyCar Series, was not happy to have a glitzy girl marking her place on the grid so organizers arranged for a male to do the job. And he was a good sport about it, too.

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