TORONTO — The Honda Indy Toronto resonates strongly with team owner Michael Andretti but it also means a lot to his drivers too.
Andretti has many great memories racing through the streets of Toronto and earned seven victories here during his legendary career and added an eighth win — this time as a team owner — a year ago with driver Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Andretti and his drivers spoke to sportsnet.ca over the course of the race weekend and shared what coming to Toronto means to them.
“It’s such a special race for me personally,” Andretti said. “I’ve had a lot of good luck up here as a driver and it’s always one of the highlights of the year so we’re always looking forward to coming up here.”
James Hinchcliffe remembers seeing those Andretti victories. The Oakville, Ont., native has attended every Toronto race since he was a toddler and he said the Andretti name carries a lot of weight in this city.
“It’s legendary,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s probably more recognized in Toronto than (Paul) Tracy or (Jacques) Villeneuve or (Greg) Moore because of the success Michael has had here, especially winning seven times.”
Hinchcliffe recalled that during the years he used to come here as a fan with family and friends, they would have friendly wagers over which driver would win the race. It wasn’t particularly hard who would walk away the winner though.
“We would rip up the spotter’s guide and put all of the names into a hat and every year whoever pulled Michael Andretti we would just give them the money at the start of the race,” Hinchcliffe said. “Seven times they were right, it was pretty simple.”
Now on the other side of the fence, Hinchcliffe said racing in his hometown and being the fan favourite is “tremendous,” but he’s also proud to be able to do it while carrying the Andretti name.
“The name has a tremendous amount of power in this town and to be associated with that just makes our position that much stronger,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s really an honour to be associated with them.”
Marco Andretti remembers seeing his father earn at least a win or two in Toronto and it’s the strong Canadian fan base that jumps out to him in particular.
“Toronto has always been great to our family and very welcoming,” Andretti said. “The fans are awesome. I always have fun at this track but primarily when I come up north I think of the fans. They’re fairly educated on what we do and passionate so that makes us feel good as drivers.”
A fourth-place finish in Race 1 on Saturday gave the younger Andretti his best finish ever north of the border. He spent the past off-season in Europe to improve his skills on road and street courses and now finds himself not only in contention for the series championship but also for the Mario Andretti Road Course Trophy, named after his grandfather.
Michael said it’s wonderful seeing the strides his son has made this season maturing as a driver with two podiums and a total of seven top-10 finishes in the eight road and street courses so far this season.
“I’m excited for him because he has improved so much and even has room for more improvement,” he said. “Once he gets it 100 per cent right he’s going to be really difficult to beat.”
The Toronto race is also a homecoming for not only Hinchcliffe but Hunter-Reay as well. Although his passport says he’s American, Hunter-Reay’s mother was from Hamilton, Ont., and he has family and friends in the GTA.
“When it comes down to it, I am half Canadian,” Hunter-Reay said. “My aunt and uncle still live here and I love coming here. This race in Toronto is one of the best.”
Hunter-Reay’s win a year ago was actually the second time he was victorious at the track. Back in 2001, Hunter-Reay was driving in Barber Dodge and earned his second career win in the feeder series in Toronto.
“That was one of my first really big races,” Hunter-Reay recalled. “That was a big moment when I won that one with family here. It was a special time for me so it’s nothing but great memories.
“I’m proud to be a winner here in Barber Dodge and IndyCar.”
Andretti hopes those strong memories in Toronto continue to grow with his drivers.
“If you could do well here it’ll be a good feeling for you,” Andretti said. “For Ryan winning here last year was a big deal so coming back as the returning champion obviously is a cool thing and I’m sure for Marco because of his success if he could just come and win a race here it would be incredible.”