The IndyCar Experience: On the Scene at Toronto’s Honda Indy

December 7, 2019

“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.” –Ernest Hemingway

Scanning the list of competitors for this year’s IndyCar race in Toronto and the first thing that jumps to my attention is the names that are missing from the previous year. Most of those drivers couldn’t secure their “ride” through the complicated game of navigating politics and utilizing connections to find sponsorship. Four-time IndyCar series champion Dario Franchitti did not make the Toronto grid because he retired from racing last year; he’d suffered his third concussion in a Houston race last October and decided to call it quits.

The temporary street circuit in Toronto has seen better days. From 1986 to 2005, it was known as the Molson Indy, after a domestic brand of Canadian beer that I don’t like to drink. Attendance during the series’ glory days was 60,000 to 70,000 people. This year’s race is called the Honda Indy; single day attendance would be lucky to get more than 30,000 people.

The bright spot for the event is Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe. Hinch won three races in 2013, but had been struggling to make it to the podium during this season. I like Hinchcliffe because he’s a funny guy. When I asked him if he ever listened to the rock band Live (owners of United Fiber and Data, the sponsors of Hinchcliffe’s car) back in the ‘90s, he responded by saying he listened to Raffi until he was 14.

The modern climate has entrenched the notion of corporate drivers who are extremely careful with what they say, however. This contrasts starkly with the past—Formula 1 driver Nelson Piquet (F1 champion in 1981, 1983 and 1987) used to say crazy shit all the time. When a journalist asked Piquet who was the best between himself and fellow-Brazilian Ayrton Senna, he replied “I’m alive” (Senna was tragically killed while leading the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994).

There are supposed to be two races in Toronto; one on Saturday, and another on Sunday. Toronto’s notorious crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford attends Saturday’s race; The Bachelor Canada season two’s Tim Warmels is the Grand Marshall for Saturday’s race. Back in 2011, we had Dan Aykroyd as Grand Marshall, so for IndyCar to go from a Ghostbuster to slumming for a reality show contestant is a downer.

As the Saturday race is slated to kick off in the afternoon, the storm clouds go from spitting raindrops to a steady downpour. Conditions are so bad that the safety car spins out and nearly crashes—something the veteran journalists around the media center say they have never seen before. After two hours of waiting, the race is cancelled without any official laps run.

The next day, it’s announced that the drivers will run two 65-lap races: One at 10:30 AM and a second one scheduled for 4:15 PM. Given that Toronto is a demanding street course, I wonder how the drivers really feel about this decision. The truth is, with the IndyCar championship up for grabs, and the prospect of not delivering on their commitments to fans, sponsors, teams and other major powerbrokers, they would have to suffer life-altering consequences to keep them from making it to the starting grid.

Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais grabbed the pole position in Saturday’s qualifying. He manages to get the lead and capture the first race. Afterwards, instead of ecstatic celebration, he sounded relieved that nothing went wrong, as has been his luck all season. He’s probably more known for dropping his second-place trophy last year than for any of his recent on-track activities.

Instead of getting rest throughout the afternoon before the second race, all of the IndyCar drivers head to the paddock area to sign autographs and appear in photos for fans. This is the magical side where IndyCar blows past Formula 1—fans get up-close-and-personal with their heroes rather than dealing with Formula 1’s constant attempts to manufacture elitism.

James Hinchcliffe and Juan Pablo Montoya drew the longest lines for fans. One driver who had no one lined up to get his autograph when I passed by was British racer Mike Conway. Conway was a driver who had experienced several life-threatening accidents racing on ovals—in the 2010 Indy 500, he broke his leg and fractured vertebrae in his back. He’d called it quits on ovals and only raced on road courses and street circuits.

As luck would have it, intermittent rain affected the second race. Hometown hero James Hinchcliffe was out of contention early on after Juan Pablo Montoya crashed and Hinch made contact. A tire strategy call saw Mike Conway take the checkered flag, his second win of the season.

(Conway signs autographs.)

Out of 14 IndyCar races run, there have been nine different winners. That shows you how closely matched the cars are—there are few advantages to be chiseled out by bigger teams with more financial resources, unlike Formula 1 where Mercedes have a lock on the championship.

My final thought on IndyCar floated back to Dario Franchitti, who upon retirement had taken a job with Chip-Ganassi Racing—his old outfit—that had duties as eclectic as giving up trade secrets to CGR drivers to drying off Ganassi teammate Tony Kanaan’s helmet after Saturday’s rainstorm.

In 2000, Franchitti gave an interview to ESPN: The Magazine where he talked about the luck required for a career in motorsports: “The world is full of guys who don’t have money and hang around tracks looking for rides. I easily could have been one of them.”

As I watched Franchitti make his rounds throughout the track over the weekend, I wondered how he felt at this juncture of his career. He used to be that blindingly-dominant star. Now here he was, on the outside looking in.


Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.

(Dario Franchitti rides a Target motorbike through the pit area.)

(United Fiber and Data girls supporting James Hinchcliffe.)