Honda roars in to rescue race

The Honda Indy Toronto, starring drivers Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Dario Franchitti and at least 20 others, will be held next July 10-12 through the CNE and along Lake Shore Blvd. W.

  • The beginning of morning rush hour, cars on the highway traveling to and from downtown

Six months ago, when the retired seven-time winner of the Molson Indy, Michael Andretti, mused in public that his promotions company was interested in reviving a race through the streets of Toronto in 2009, it got a call from Honda Canada.

The message?

“Count us in.”

So yesterday at a news conference in the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place, officials from Andretti-Green Promotions and Honda Canada made it official:

The Honda Indy Toronto, starring drivers Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Dario Franchitti and at least 20 others, will be held next July 10-12 through the CNE and along Lake Shore Blvd. W.

It will mark the return of a popular summertime festival that had been held every July going back to 1986 except for this year, when it became a victim of the last-minute reunification of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series.

The race was sponsored by Molson for 20 years but when the brewery pulled out in mid-2005, interest started to fall off and the 2006 and ‘07 “Grand Prix” races were shadows of previous promotions.

Just about everybody who spoke yesterday suggested the aim is to recapture the glory years when the Toronto Indy was a “must-attend, must-see” attraction.

Andretti himself concluded his remarks yesterday by saying: “It (the race) was always one of the premier events in North America and our goal is to make it the premier event in North America.”

Kevin Savoree, a partner in the venture with Andretti and Kim Green, told the Star in an interview that the company intends to present more than a car race.

“I promise you that this will be an event,” he said. “There will be a great week’s worth of activities leading up to the race. And then, on the weekend itself, we’ll have other races and attractions for the fans (including the Firestone Indy Lights series) but I was thinking: “Wouldn’t motorcycles look good out on that course?”

Arch Wilcox, the car manufacturer’s vice-president of sales, said Honda leaped at the opportunity to get involved with the Andretti-Green organization, which also promotes the Indy car race each spring at St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I heard some rumours,” Wilcox said. “So I made some calls and I said: ‘If you guys are going to get this done, call us because we’ll be there as a player. Don’t call anybody else. Call us.’ ”

Said Wildox: “Mr. Honda (Soichiro Honda, who founded the company in 1948) once said that without racing there would be no Honda. He firmly believed that the company’s products couldn’t be improved if they weren’t raced.

“So we felt it was only a natural step for us to support the return of Indy racing to Toronto.”

Wilcox, like Honda Canada executive vice president Jerry Chenkin, wouldn’t say how much the company had agreed to pay to be title sponsor.

In fact, the only person at yesterday’s press conference to mention dollars and cents was provincial tourism minister Peter Fonseca, who revealed that Ontario would pony up $1 million in support for each of the next three years.

It’s believed that Molson spent $2 million a year to promote the race but Chenkin wouldn’t bite.

Other than to say that Honda’s dealer network in Ontario would help with the promotion, he said Honda’s financial contribution was, and would remain, a “closely guarded secret.”

Fonseca said the decision to support the race was an easy one for the government to make.

“This race allows us to showcase Ontario to the rest of the world,” he said. “About 48 million people in 198 countries watch – 2.4 million here in Canada and 4.9 million in the United States.

“What’s best is the economic impact on this city. The race generates $50 million in economic activity here in Toronto, including $5 million for our tourism sector.

“That’s why our government is proud to partner and to provide $1-million a year over the next three years to support the return of the Toronto Indy.”

In addition to the retired driver Andretti, many of the other Andretti-Green and Indy Racing League personnel on hand yesterday had been part of the Toronto Indy races in the early years.

Said Kim Green, a partner with Savoree and Andretti in Andretti-Green Promotions as well as Andretti-Green Racing (which runs drivers Patrick, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Hideki Mutoh):

“I came here for the first race in 1986. I was the mechanic (and right-rear tire changer) on Jacques Villeneuve’s car (Gilles Villeneuve’s brother). We built him a beautiful car and we qualified well but we didn’t last all that long in the race – Jacques crashed the car on the last corner of the first lap, I think.

“Then I had the pleasure of working in later years (1994 and ‘95) with Gilles’s son, Jacques. I was team manager for Forsythe-Green Racing, which ran Jacques. He won the Indy 500 and the (CART) championship that second year. I still stay in touch with Jacques.”

Mayor David Miller was not present yesterday. Neither was deputy mayor Joe Pantalone, who had talked last spring about the importance of getting the Toronto Indy back on the Indy car calendar next year.

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