Indy car drivers James Hinchcliffe and Alex Tagliani flew into Toronto on Monday, a day after final qualifying at Indianapolis (James 9th; Tag 11th), to talk about next weekend’s Indy 500 and to beat the drums for the Honda Indy Toronto scheduled July 12-14 at Exhibition Place.
That they are both optimistic about doing well in the 97th Greatest Spectacle In Racing, let there be no doubt. That they are both apprehensive about this year's Honda Indy, ditto.
The reason? This July’s Indy will be unlike any other in the 27-year-history of the event that started life in 1986 as the Molson Indy. There will not be one feature race through the streets of the CNE that weekend, but two complete rounds of the 19-race championship.
This has never been done before, despite what some of the IZOD IndyCar Series’ drum beaters would have you believe.
Yes, previously there were a few race weekends that featured "twin" events. That means, instead of one 250-lap race, they would throw the checkered flag after the first 125 laps and let everybody have a rest and maybe change the oil in the cars and then they’d roll them out again and have another 125-lap race.
But this is different. Totally different.
On Saturday of race weekend, the cars will line up in their qualifying order (time trials will be held on Fri., July 12, which will continue to be a no-admission Fan Day) and be flagged off for an 85-lap race around the 2.824-kilometre (1.755-mile) street circuit.
After the checkers, the winner will be interviewed on TV and the trophies presented to the first three finishers. Usually, at this point, the cars would be loaded onto transporters and driven off to the site of the next race.
But not this time.
The next day, Sun., July 14, they will do it all over again. A complete race program will be run off, with winners and losers and points awarded and the whole shebang.
Said Tagliani: "The two Toronto races are gonna be really, really hard. The crew guys, they work all weekend long, the car has to be repaired, be rebuilt, you have to look at the gearbox, the drive shaft. I mean that’s a lot of s--t to do.
"When you have, like 12 hours to do all that, that’s even worse. You don’t have a week to get it ready for the next race.
"It’s going to be very demanding for the drivers. James, he has blisters on his hands on Monday (after a ‘normal’ race). Now you wake up Sunday after a complete race Saturday, how you gonna feel about driving with blisters on Sunday?
"I’m preparing myself. I have a buddy that imports hyperbaric chambers and I’m going to get in for an hour every night and replenish my body with oxygen. I want to try everything I can so that when I wake up Sunday morning, I’m going to feel like it is Saturday morning."
Hinchcliffe was a little more philosophical about the whole business. After all, Toronto is the second "two-race" weekend, with Detroit being the first. And the first of those two races in the Motor City is only six days after the Indy 500.
"Whether you want it or not, it’s coming," said the winner of two of the four IndyCar races to date. "It’s the situation we’re in.
"The first one (Detroit) comes right after the month of May, which is difficult because you can’t train correctly; you’re in the car every day (in Indianapolis in May).
"It’s going to be a huge, huge challenge but, ultimately, I’ll be totally okay with it if it’s a good show and the fans of Toronto enjoy it because that’s what we’re here for: the fans."
One individual pumped up about the two races is event president and general manager, Charlie Johnstone.
"We have practicing and qualifying on Friday; how dynamic is that?" he said. "And we have a full race on Saturday and a full race on Sunday. From an operations standpoint, it’s the same but now we have a bigger show.
"With the support races (Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda Series, etc.) and the Indy car races, the on-track action will be non-stop from 8 in the morning till 5:30 or 6 in the afternoon."
Johnstone said there will be a change in the approach to what previously was known as Free Friday.
"We still won’t be charging admission for Friday," he said, "but the aim of Free Friday was to raise money, as well as awareness, for the Children’s Wish Foundation. Previously, if you wanted to make a donation, it was voluntary; now, if you want to come in on Friday you will have to make a donation.
"There’s value in what we’re putting on the track, particularly now with the qualifying on Friday. Honda and the Honda Dealers of Ontario are going to match dollar for dollar what’s raised at the gate so it’s good all the way around."
Johnstone said ticket prices have been lowered this year but real value will come from the purchase of a two-day weekend pass or seat.
"For Saturday and Sunday, a General Admission ticket of $50 gets you in both days. We’ve moved around some grandstands so we’ve opened up some new General Admission viewing areas.
"And there’s all sorts of stuff going on, There’s a craft beer festival and a food festival, there’s music and all sorts of interactive displays going on and there’s going to be some pretty incredible car racing going on out on the track, too."
I asked Johnston if he thought the general public knows there are two complete races this year and not just the usual one?
"No, not yet," he said. "But all of our marketing and communications is only set to start after the Indianapolis 500. The motorsport fans know, the motorsport community knows but we have to reach out to the general public."
With help from Hinchcliffe and Tagliani, that "reaching out" got a kick start on Monday.
- NORRIS McDONALD