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Norris McDonald’s Top Ten Toronto Indys

Norris McDonald picks his Top Ten Toronto Indy races.

Published July 13, 2010
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With the 24th renewal of the Toronto Indy – now known as the Honda Indy Toronto – scheduled for this weekend, it seemed like a good idea to take a look back at Indys past and to pick out the Ten Best.

While there is a No.1-best-ever race, the rest – although numbered – are in no particular order.

10. Although first proposed in 1968 (and talk about an opportunity missed!), Indy cars didn’t race through the streets of Toronto till 1986. The giants of the sport took part then – Rahal, Sullivan, the two Andrettis, Fittipaldi, Unser Jr., Rutherford, Sneva and on and on – and the first Molson Indy was a roaring success.

The race was won by Bobby Rahal, who’d won the Indianapolis 500 earlier that year. But it was no walk in the park and some would argue his drive through the field to Winner’s Circle after being assessed not one but two penalties was one of the great comebacks in auto racing history.

There was a lengthy pace-car period after driver Mike Nish was involved in a serious accident. Officials determined that Rahal had passed the pace car (a real no-no) in his rush to make a pit stop and then illegally advanced his position by rushing out in front of the pace car when he left the pits.

He was assessed a 49-second stop-and-wait penalty – basically unheard-of before and since. When he was eventually allowed to rejoin the race, he drove like a man possessed. Not only did he make up the time, he went on to win over Danny Sullivan.

9. The titans of the sport returned to Toronto in 1987 and – bingo! – another great race went into the record books.

Rahal went out and won the pole, showing that his victory the year previous was no fluke, and was running third late in the race. Up front, Emmerson Fittipaldi was leading with the Cary Grant-handsome Sullivan trailing.

Suddenly, with three corners to go before the checkers, Fittipaldi came upon a gaggle of slower-moving cars. Sullivan was able to close right up.

Exiting that third-last turn, Sullivan lurched up the inside, hoping to catch the ex-F1 champion Fittipaldi off-guard. But “Emmo” was having none of it and “closed the door” on Danny, forcing Sullivan into a half-spin when they touched.

Fittipaldi continued on for the victory and Sullivan, with a bent suspension, managed to limp home second – his second straight bridesmaid finish in Toronto.

8. Michael Andretti won seven Toronto Indys but his last one, in 2001, was the most exciting.

On the first lap, he collided with then-rookie Scott Dixon. Fortunately, the damage to his car was minor but he stalled and had to wait for the CART safety crew to either give him a push start or tow-rope him back to the pits. They opted for the former and he was able to fire up and move on before the pace car put him a lap down.

The accident forced Andretti to the back of the 26-car pack, but his pit strategists used the time to plot the rest of the 95-lap race. Every time there was a yellow, Andretti would duck into the pits to top up his fuel tank and as the race wore on, the strategy began to work.

“We picked off a lot of cars because many of them (hadn’t stopped and) were saving fuel and I was able to go for it,” he said after the race.

He called the victory the most satisfying of his seven Toronto triumphs. But he also admitted that he got lucky.

7. The 1990 Molson Indy stands out my mind for a reason other than it was one of the only two Indys to date where it rained during the race – and it poured right from the start that year.

Al Unser Jr. won and Michael Andretti was second and it was so miserable that organizers stopped it 10 laps short of the finish when both front-runners agreed to call it a day.

But this is why I found it exciting.

For eons, Indy car racing had been top of the mountain in the U.S. and the entrants all came from midget and sprint-car racing. But the times, they were a-changin’ and European road racers with buckets-full of cash were arriving on the scene and paying the car owners for the privilege of driving their racing cars. (Does anybody even remember GUIDO DACCO???) As a result, most of the old guard, the midget and sprint-car racers, were being shown the door.

That year’s Toronto Indy field included one of those throwbacks. His name was Duane Carter Jr., but he was better known as Pancho Carter. No slouch, he qualified 18th in the 27-car field (he even outqualified our own Scott Goodyear) but you knew that when the race started, Pancho would likely fade.

But then it rained and the old sprint-car driver was in his element. Sprint cars are driven by the accelerator and the brakes are seldom used. And the driver slides them around speedways rather than steering them. So a wet race was right down Carter’s alley and, one by one, he started picking off cars.

I maintain to this day that if his racer hadn’t broken down, Pancho Carter would have won that 1990 Molson Indy. But water got into the electrics and he stalled out. It was his last season in the big time.

6. 1989 was a significant year in Canadian motorsport.

Three Canadians were in the Molson Indy field – Ludwig Heimrath Jr. and Scott Goodyear of Toronto plus John Jones from Thunder Bay – and one of them, Goodyear, was about to throw down the gauntlet, the end result of which was a long-term Indy car racing contract with Toronto’s MacKenzie Financial that saw him go on to nearly win the Indy 500 twice.

Goodyear had bumped into MacKenzie CEO Jim O’Donnell at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. O’Donnell asked if Goodyear would be interested in driving Indy cars (Scott had raced in several events previously, including the 1987 Molson Indy). The answer, of course, was in the affirmative.

After a warmup at Road America, Goodyear came to Toronto where MacKenzie had entered two sponsored cars – one for Heimrath and the other for Goodyear. Within the team, Heimrath was regarded as No. 1; although Goodyear was No. 2, he planned to drive as if he was No. 1.

CART used to split its qualifying sessions into two groups – the fastest 12 and then the rest. Goodyear was in the fast 12 all weekend and Heimrath wasn’t. Goodyear eventually qualified 14th while Hemrath was 24th.

At the end of the season, Goodyear signed a multi-year agreement with MacKenzie and Ludwig Heimrath Jr.’s career was over.

5. The super team of Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy swept the 1999 Molson Indy by finishing first and second.

They hugged each other on the podium – they still had their helmets on – and the record crowd of more than 72,000 people went wild when Tracy waved a little Canadian flag.

It was the famous Team Kool Green’s first one-two finish; team owner Barry Green had turned 47 the day before, so it was the perfect birthday gift.

And it marked the perfect comeback from the year before (see No. 4, below).

Tracy and Franchitti had several famous comings-together previously – in particular, one in Houston the year before when Tracy crashed Franchitti, who was leading, right out of the race. Fans were wondering if there might be a repeat as Franchitti settled into first and Tracy was second in the race’s late-going.

But at the post-race press conference, both men revealed that Green had instituted a policy that the driver who was ahead in championship points had the right-of-way. That was Franchitti and Tracy said he was fine with that.

“It was Dario’s day. I consider second for me to be as good as a win.”

Judging by their reaction, the fans felt the same way.

4. Although NASCAR drivers have infringed on the copyright, CART Indy car drivers were the first to celebrate victories by turning donuts (Alex Zanardi) or climbing fences (Helio ‘Spiderman’ Castroneves).

The neat thing about the 1998 Molson Indy was that winner Alex Zanardi absolutely thrilled the fans along the main straight by turning eight perfect donuts while holding his right index finger in the air. (There was enough tire smoke over the CNE after he finished that a casual observer driving past on the Gardiner might have wondered whether a bomb had gone off.)

The race was exciting enough – Dario Franchitti had been winning by a mile, literally, when he suffered a brake problem and spun out (to be missed by several drivers but hit by his own Team Kool Green teammate, Paul Tracy) – but it was the aftermath performance by Zanardi that had everybody talking on the way home.

3. In 2007, Will Power served notice that he would be a power (couldn’t help it) to be reckoned with in Indy car racing when he won the briefly renamed Toronto Grand Prix while driving for Team Australia.

His quick and controlled driving was in contrast to the antics of some of the other racers out there, including Simon Pagenaud, Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy (although poor Paul was almost an innocent bystander in the wreck that corralled him).

Sebastien Bourdais was running well near the end of the race when Robert Doornbos just flat out ran into him.

Although the calibre of racing – and racers – was not the best, Power’s performance showed he was a star in the making and he’s proving it now. He comes into this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto in first place in the IZOD IndyCar Series standings.

2. For awhile last year, it looked like Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy were going to finish one-two in the first Honda Indy Toronto, which was the first Toronto Indy to feature the unified series after the 2008 event was cancelled.

In the end, however, it was classic tortoise-and-hare, with Dario Franchitti coming through for the win. Franchitti led the first lap and the last; in between, he plugged along and let his opponents defeat themselves.

Chief among them was Tagliani, who found himself in the lead on Lap 48 and held it for 21 laps. Unfortunately, he waited too long to take on fuel and this miscalculation saw him fall well back.

Tracy, meantime, followed Tagliani for awhile, then – after a pit stop – appeared to be heading for a podium position. He pulled up behind Helio Castroneves, whose tires had lost grip, and looked certain to pass him for third place. But Tracy tried to pass Castroneves in a twisty part of the circuit and the two crashed into each other – and out of the race.

1. The best Toronto Indy ever came in 1993 when the “Thrill from West Hill,” Paul Tracy, became the first Canadian to win an Indy car race in his home and native land when he won the Molson Indy in grand style.

At the time, it was the seventh Indy car win recorded by a Canadian (Tracy had won two races earlier that season, Scott Goodyear had won the 1992 Marlboro 500 at Michigan Speedway, Jacques Villeneuve Sr. won at Road America in 1985 and Pete Henderson and Ira Vail both won board track races for Indy cars back in the nineteen-teens).

It also marked the first major international racing victory for a Canadian driver in Canada since Gilles Villeneuve had won the 1978 F1 Grand Prix of Canada.

It was quick work on his final pit stop by his Marlboro Team Penske crew that kept Tracy out in front of his teammate, Emmerson Fittipaldi, with whom he’d had a weekend-long tustle.

Fittipaldi had pipped Tracy for the pole in Saturday qualifying and was breathing down his neck the whole race the next day.

It was a wildly popular victory.

“It’s just a great feeling to win here and I’m going to need a few days for it to sink in, that I actually have won this race, “ Tracy said afterward.

“I can’t really get it into words what the day was like. The fans were tremendous and right from the time I got to the track, I could feel them pulling for me. On the last lap, I could just sense that they were really cheering me to the line, but I had to keep my concentration on the race because I had a couple of slow cars in front of me.

“But when I crossed the line, I could look and see them going a little wild. It was just a great day and I’m glad I could bring it home for the people of Toronto and Canada.”

Tracy won the Molson Indy again 10 years later, in 2003, but it was against a less-than-stellar field; the CART/IRL feud meant most of the good drivers had gone over to Tony George’s side.

Tracy will be in Toronto again this weekend, taking another kick at the can. If he should happen to win, it would be 1993 all over again because – in the vernacular of that stupid 12-year war – “everybody would be together” again, and here.