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The COVID-19 pandemic has halted IndyCar from racing in Toronto for the past two years. (IndyCar photo)

IndyCar Returns To Toronto

The NTT IndyCar Series returns to the streets of Canada’s most populous city and the fourth-largest city in North America after the COVID-19 pandemic halted the Honda Indy Toronto two consecutive years.

With a population of 2.8 million, Toronto is the largest city that hosts the series. In terms of North American population, Toronto ranks behind Mexico City’s 9.3 million, New York’s 8.8 million and Los Angeles’ 3.8 million.

It’s also Canada’s media capital and one of IndyCar’s most valuable venues as it’s the only race on the schedule outside of the United States.

Bobby Rahal drove a March/Cosworth to victory in the first CART/IndyCar race at Toronto’s Exhibition Place on July 20, 1986. CART and its successor, the Champ Car World Series, ran on the streets of Toronto every year until Will Power’s victory on July 8, 2007.

When Champ Car and the Indy Racing League unified to create the IndyCar Series in February 2008, Toronto was left off the schedule for one year.

It returned on July 12, 2009, when Dario Franchitti drove a Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to victory.

Simon Pagenaud won the last Honda Indy Toronto prior to the COVID-19 pandemic on July 14, 2019.

Despite the two years on the sidelines, Green Savoree Promotions remained resolute in its plan to bring Toronto back as soon as possible. That perseverance was rewarded when Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto lifted most health restrictions.

“There are a lot of layers in it,” said Honda Indy Toronto President Jeff Atkinson. “Having very strong ownership with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree really helped guide us through the challenges that we experienced up here in Toronto.

“We were prepared for everything. A lot of the decisions were out of our control. It was a lot of government decisions that were municipal, provincial and federal — a lot of layers there. A lot of our government stakeholders wanted the event to occur safely if it could. Unfortunately, it couldn’t occur in 2020 and ’21.

“We are very prepared and excited to bring the Honda Indy Toronto back July 15-17.”

Green Savoree Promotions promotes four of the 17 races on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule. The season kicks off with the wildly popular Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The centerpiece to the Green Savoree portfolio is the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. This year’s Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio is scheduled for July 3 — two weeks before the Honda Indy Toronto.

The final Green Savoree race is the Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 4.

St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio ran races with limited fan capacity in 2020. All capacity restrictions were lifted in 2021. Portland was not run in 2020, but returned in 2021.

That left Toronto as the only race waiting to return.

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Fans cheer from the stands as the NTT IndyCar Series makes their way around Toronto. (IndyCar photo)

“We were really hampered by health restrictions because the government has the best interests of the population in mind,” Atkinson said. “It had a lot to do with the restrictions in place. You saw events all around the province of Ontario canceled.

“Toronto didn’t have baseball return until last August. It was very difficult to have an event take place in the month of July in Toronto. We were ready to hold an event, if we could. I know our stakeholders and sponsors and others were eager to bring the Honda Indy Toronto back in any year.

“It just happens that 2022 is our comeback story,” Atkinson continued. “We are very excited to compete on the city streets. Our government stakeholders are also eager to get the IndyCar Series back on the schedule.

“Ultimately, when it comes to the month of July the city will be able to welcome the IndyCar Series back to Toronto with open arms.”

Without a race for two years, it has increased the appetite and desire for fans to return to live action. It happened at this year’s Indianapolis 500, which had the largest crowd since the 100th running of the race in 2016 when it was sold out.

Atkinson is also seeing an uptick in ticket sales for Toronto.

“It’s something we have been talking to our partners about,” Atkinson said. “You have a core audience, your season-ticket subscriber, that will be there for all three days, no matter what. Then, there is a group of attendees that are festival goers, these wonderful people that come to events that might come every two or three years. They aren’t coming every year.

“But after you take two years off, everyone wants to come back to your event. We said that when we launched our ticket sales on Thursday before Easter weekend. It was an incredible launch for us. It was the best launch we’ve ever had for our ticket sales.

“We also had a number of customers who deferred their tickets and knew they were coming back in either 2021 or ’22.”

Sponsors are also returning in a big way.

“Another thing we are seeing is a huge increase in hospitality,” Atkinson said. “In Ontario, with the restrictions, up until March, we were unable to host big events. There are a lot of companies that want to get in front of their customers again. They are choosing the Honda Indy Toronto as a platform to talk about their products to their clients in the hospitality suites.

“Right now, we are on target for a very strong hospitality turnout,” Atkinson continued. “That is something we are very proud of. It’s great to see all of these clients and businesses sign up for our hospitality as well. We are seeing the same thing our peers might be seeing at other venues.”

Atkinson said the Toronto market is quite different when it comes to racing. It’s a large walkup crowd that maybe wants to roam the grounds and sit in a beer garden or café instead of the grandstand.

He expects a large general admission crowd.

“Isn’t it awesome to host an IndyCar event in a world-class city like Toronto in its downtown,” Atkinson said. “It gives our fans a spectacular backdrop to a great IndyCar race.”

One of those fans that attended the Honda Indy Toronto was James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ontario — a Toronto suburb. In fact, Hinchcliffe has been to every Honda Indy Toronto, although the first one comes with a great backstory.

“The race started the year I was born, but I wasn’t born until December,” said the former IndyCar Series driver who now works for NBC Sports. “Technically, I was there because my mom was there and was pregnant.

“Since then, I’ve been to every one, either as a spectator or a participant.

“I was the kid that was glued to the fence when the cars were on track and chasing the drivers around the paddock with a hero card and a Sharpie in between sessions,” Hinchcliffe remembered. “Growing up, it was interesting to get to that point in my career where I made my first start in the junior categories getting to experience the event from the other side of the fence having spent so many years hanging off the other side.”

IndyCar is back in Toronto and Canadians couldn’t be happier.

“It’s huge,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s not just a great sign that things are coming back to normal not just for IndyCar, but for Toronto and Canada in general. The opening process up there has been more measured and taken a bit more time. I believe the fans are dying for more events to come to and the opportunity to sit outside and watch Indy cars run around Exhibition Place.

“I’m thrilled with coming back. Everyone I’ve talked to is thrilled with coming back and I can’t wait to see how the event turns out.

“I carried the Canadian flag as a driver,” Hinchcliffe added. “It was a huge honor to have a race not just in your home country, but your hometown. A lot of drivers in the series don’t get to race in their home country or even home continent, and I got to race in my backyard. The fans in Canada and the media and sponsors were all supportive. I was incredibly happy to get to do it. I looked forward to it every year, getting on the track and putting on a good show for everybody.”

One of Toronto’s greatest assets is its cosmopolitan appeal with a large population.

“Its greatest asset was its greatest drawback to COVID — being in such a populated city that took the pandemic seriously,” Hinchcliffe said. “Ultimately, if you look at all of the street circuits we have like Long Beach, St. Pete and now Nashville, the key ingredient is picking a great city and bringing IndyCar racing to the people, to the big city.

“We’ve been doing it in Toronto for over 30 years. It’s great to have the opportunity now to come back and keep that tradition going.”

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