At least once in your life you should experience a high-speed motorsports race in person.
That was my thinking, along with wanting to spend some quality time with my 21-year-old son, Ben, for going to see the Honda Indy Toronto this past weekend. For the first time in the event’s long history, back-to-back races took place on the venerable grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition and part of Lakeshore Boulevard outside of it.
Anyone who has ever driven on Lakeshore Boulevard can attest the speed limit is considerably more like the pace of a snail than a jack rabbit, so watching the cars whip around the course at speeds close to 200 m.p.h. is something to behold. You don’t actually see the cars, but rather the blur as they blaze by, in particular if you are stationed close to the oval. The noise is also loud in that close proximity, which is why earplugs were given out free of charge for the uninitiated.
But the car race is actually only part of the spectacle. If you take the time to walk and see all the attractions, collectively this is a festival of the fast and furious.
Upon entry, there is a large hall where many luxurious camper homes that probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars are stationed, along with vans that transport the various race cars. It is not just the IndyCars, but the many that comprise some of the lesser races earlier in the day. Seeing and feeling the massive wheels without any grooves makes you appreciate the difference between the ones used for high-performance race cars versus street cars. These tires give new meaning to burning rubber.
The whole area is somewhat like an inner world in which families of the drivers and employees of the racing teams congregate and go about their business, almost oblivious to the gawkers staring at them. That said, they are amenable to taking pictures and allowing you to sit inside the various cars or at least get close enough to see them.
The cars in the IndyCar paddock, where all the teams and cars are stationed, are cordoned off but large visible banners identify the driver and his car number. Some of the drivers may be available for photos, but the most impressive things are the cars. Without the sounds of the revved-up engines, they are ominously silent, reminding me of the car in the movie Christine. The car had a life and a powerful personality, which these would seem to have once they are started up and given full throttle.
The Super Truck race preceded the main race, and superficially these models look like a smaller version of the kind you would see at a Monster Truck. These Super Trucks have about 450 horsepower, or almost double that of a street truck, which is much heavier. I had my son take a picture of me beside the Sporstnet car that legendary Canadian driver-turned race analyst Paul Tracy would be driving in the truck series. Normally, the Truck Series takes place on indoor dirt tracks, so this was something new. It had only taken place once before at a race earlier in the season and designed to offer a different form of racing. Before the race began, I heard a loud bang. Then I heard it again, and it was the sound of ramp platforms lowered to the ground. I said to my son the trucks were going to race up the ramps. He couldn't believe it. In all, four ramps were placed on the main Indy track and, yes, the trucks raced up the lifts and flew about 20 feet in the air. The trucks also almost tipped over going around the turns, travelling on only two wheels because of the sheer speed and force. The drivers competed in two races, and on the second Tracy crashed into a wall shortly after landing following a jump. I joked that the company car was totaled, but Tracy didn't suffer an injury and did analysis of the main race for Sportsnet.
The drivers were paraded one by one in spanking-new white trucks, standing in the flatbed and waving to the fans. It was like watching Roman gladiators about to do battle, without their helmets. James Hinchcliffe, the pride of Oakville, Ont., received the loudest ovation. Placards that read "Go Hinch Go" were passed out to cheer for Hinchcliffe, although many people used them as fans to cool off in the oppressive heat.
When the drivers walked toward pit row to prepare for the race, Hinchcliffe ambled past his GoDaddy.com area. It would later be announced his car had a stuck throttle and it wouldn't be fixed until the first three of 85 laps had been completed. The race featured a standing start for the first time ever, compared to the traditional running start. A standing start had been the plan for Saturday's race but a stalled car shortly after the start changed the plan to a running start.
What followed afterward became a fairly dull race that featured few incidents and not a lot of jockeying for position, the opposite of Saturday's race, which was the first half of the first-ever 2inT.O. series. Scott Dixon, who won Saturday's race and the one the previous Sunday at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, led for all but three laps in which he pitted. About halfway through the race, many in the crowd started to leave. I sensed a lull in the action caused this restlessness, perhaps even boredom, along with the fact the sun happened to be baking the backs and heads of anybody that hadn't properly dressed with hats and shirts. And there were many who didn't have one or both.
The fact Hinchcliffe was rendered a non-factor at the start certainly sucked the energy and enthusiasm out of the crowd. Many had come to see the emerging Canadian star, and perhaps had the race not been in Toronto his team might have decided to simply pass and save the car from wear and tear. It was an unfortunate thing, particularly for the people who showed up just for the big race.
For the most part, the race went "clean and green," which is to say almost all the way under a green flag. I sensed anyone that came hoping to see a crash was disappointed. I admit I was one of them. I didn't want to see any of the drivers hurt, but had hoped to see some see some cars careen off the walls. It didn't happen. It reminded me of going to see mixed martial arts and hoping to see a knockout but watching grappling without a lot of action -- the kind of thing that causes people to vent their frustration. We all have some kind of inherent instinct to want to see a fight in hockey, a solid hit in football and a collision at home plate.
Perhaps after seeing trucks race up ramps and fly through the air, the actual Indy cars failed to match or better the excitement. That said, this type of truck racing is akin to something like the X Games for motorsports. It is truly whack.
I also found out why there were a whole bunch of Rush banners on the walls of the track, which I noticed watching Saturday's race on Sportsnet. I thought it had something to do with the band and a date in Toronto, but found out it was actually advertising for a Ron Howard film about the battle between retired Formula One stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who were the rage in the 70s. The film debuts in September. It will probably live up to its name.
Overall, seeing and hearing IndyCar racing in person proved to be an interesting thing. My son and I both felt a rush.