Start low. Aim high.
That’s the philosophy of Michael Andretti as he and his Andretti Green promotions partners work – and yes, they’re working right up to the last minute – to kick-start an Indy car race through the streets of Toronto that wasn’t here a year ago and had really seen better days starting back about 2002.
“We’re not going to put up grandstands for 70,000 people and then not fill them,” said Andretti – who won what used to be called the Molson Indy an amazing seven times in 16 races – in a recent interview.
“We’re being realistic,” he said. “You have to get a feel (for something) first. So the first year, it’ll be a bit of a feel. We want to find out what we’re doing right and where we have to improve – where we might have to shift our focus.
“Molson, I’m told, had a limit on the number of people they could have at their first race (60,000 in 1986) and then they built it up from there. That’s what we plan to do. I don’t want to say that we’re shooting low, but we know we have work to do.”
In its heyday during the late 1980s and ’90s, the Molson Indy was a highlight of Toronto’s summer sporting and social season. The best open-wheel racing series (Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART) featuring the best and most famous drivers of Indianapolis-type cars (Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr., et al) would descend on Toronto in July and there would be black-tie galas and City Hall receptions. The downtown bar and restaurant business would boom and hotels would be jam-packed with out-of-towners.
If those days are to return, it will be thanks to Andretti and the new (to Toronto) generation of drivers he brings along, high on energy and excitement.
Andretti emphasized that it isn’t the Molson Indy anymore, it’s the much different Honda Indy. Instead of Mario Andretti there’s Marco Andretti. Yes, the Mansells and Fittipaldis and Unsers have all retired, but they’ve been replaced by a new generation of stars: Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Danica Patrick.
Patrick is almost as well known for her swimsuit layouts in Sports Illustrated and her dot-com commercials on television as she is for her racing skills but she is no shrinking violet on the race track. She finished third in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and sits fifth in the series standings. At the Long Beach Grand Prix earlier this season, a street course similar to Toronto’s, she was a fighting fourth.
“She’s a great driver and a great personality,” Andretti said. “She’s probably the biggest star in the series.”
Although her contract with Andretti Green is up at the end of this season and there have been suggestions she might jump to NASCAR, Andretti is hopeful she’ll re-sign with his team.
“I’ve gotten to know her pretty well this year,” said Andretti, considered the driving force behind Patrick’s success this season. “I think she likes where she is (in the Indy car series) and I think she wants to win the Indy 500 and she won’t be able to do that if she’s racing somewhere else.”
Are there glory days ahead for this race? Can it regain its popularity in Toronto’s summer lineup alongside Pride Week and Caribana?
It will if Andretti and his team get it right.
“This is the Honda Indy and it’s going to be bigger and better than the Molson Indy,” Andretti said. “We don’t want to equal what it used to be, we want to make it better than whatever it’s been. Even if you’re not a race fan, we want you to come down because you’re still going to have fun. That’s what we’re striving for. If you come down, everywhere you walk there’s going to be something going on and something to do.
“Sure, there’s going to be Budweiser beer gardens, but there’s going to be things for the kids to do, stuff for the whole family.”
Over time, which is what caught up with earlier versions of the event.
The decline began shortly after the turn of the century. There was a recession – mild compared to the current economic meltdown – that had a major impact on the sophisticated social scene that had buoyed the race over the years. The $500-a-ticket galas were cancelled and hotels had empty rooms on race weekend.
Molson, after 15 years of promoting the race, was losing its enthusiasm. As one veteran watcher said at the time: “Fifteen years is an abnormal amount of time for a promotion. Five or six years is usually the norm and they probably want to take it to 20, but it’s going to be a grind.”
So there was a same-old, same-old feeling around race weekends. The buzz was gone and the capper was that the product on the track was a shadow of what it once was.
Several of the established CART teams – Marlboro Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi, Rahal-Letterman Racing and Adrian Fernandez Racing – had bolted to the rival Indy Racing League.
All of a sudden, a show that featured anywhere from 24 to 26 quality cars and drivers every time it came to town was down to 18 cars and many of the drivers were less than A-grade.
And there was something else. Shortly after David Miller became mayor of Toronto in 2003, the city moved its Celebrate Toronto Street Festival – a free, weekend-long party featuring entertainment and food up and down Yonge St. – to the same weekend as the Indy. It could have been a coincidence (the mayor is not exactly a Car Guy) but this served to essentially kill much of the race-day walkup crowd.
After the 20th edition of the race in 2005, Molson put the property on the market. Kevin Kalkhoven, one of three partners in the Champ Car World Series sanctioning body that emerged in 2004 after CART went bankrupt, purchased the event (essentially to keep it out of the IRL’s hands) and renamed it the Grand Prix of Toronto.
Kalkhoven might have owned it, but he didn’t put much money or effort into promoting it and in two years – Molson stayed on as beer sponsor the first year and Steelback Brewing was title sponsor the second – the once-popular sporting event turned to dust.
In early 2008, Kalkhoven and his partners in Champ Car, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, threw in the towel and made peace with the IRL. The series merged but the IRL schedule was set and a race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., was on the calendar for July 6, which was the same as Toronto’s Champ Car date.
Although Champ Car races at Long Beach, Calif., and Edmonton were eventually inserted into the IRL schedule, Toronto’s race was lost.
For the first time since 1986, there would be no roar by the shore in Toronto.
Kalkhoven might have been just as happy to see it go. He and his partners had spent millions of dollars to prop up teams and promote other races to keep the IRL at bay and when it was all over they seemed to be happy to pretty much get out completely (although Kalkhoven has kept his foot in the sport by partnering with retired driver Jimmy Vasser in KV Racing Technology, which will run Paul Tracy in Toronto).
In particular, he was no longer interested in promoting races.When Andretti and his partners, Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, heard the Toronto race was for sale again they, in the words of Andretti, “jumped on it.”
“When we heard Toronto was available,” Andretti said, “we knew we had to have it. It was a perfect fit for us.”
(In addition to their four-car IRL racing team, Andretti Green also promotes the IRL street race in St. Petersburg, Fla., each spring.)
But Andretti and Co. didn’t rush headlong into bidding for the race. A little due diligence was in order.
“Before we decided to come up here, we explored the kind of interest that there really was,” Andretti said.
“First, we checked out the city. They wanted us back (and won’t be promoting a free street festival the same weekend this year, either) because I think they realized there was a big hole in the summer without the race. The province came on board really quickly, too, so that was good. And then we went to talk to some companies and they were like, `We’re all over it, we want to be part of this.’
“So we’ve been really happy. The response has been fantastic. Up here, there’s a lot of love for what we do and I think the corporations realize how big an event the Toronto Indy’s always been.”