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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
In 1986, the city of Toronto was awarded a CART race, marking the first appearance of the series in Canada. It was met with incredible excitement, attracting an estimated 60,000 fans. For the next several years, the Molson Indy was an annual highlight of the series. Even the contentious feud between Champ Car and the IRL didn’t dissuade local race fans from heading out to Exhibition Place, with crowds exceeding 70,000 throughout the early part of the 2000s.
In 2006, Molson stopped sponsoring the event, setting in motion a sequence of events that cost the race its reputation. When the IRL and Champ Car merged in 2007, the Toronto Indy was cancelled for the following season. Fortunately Andretti Green Racing purchased the assets of the defunct Grand Prix and reinstated the race, this time under the sponsorship of Honda. However, the lost season seems to have caused many fans to stop attending as the 2011 crowd was estimated at just 25,000.
The street course has a reputation as being one of the most difficult on the Indy Car schedule, with some narrow parts surrounded by concrete walls on both sides. Drivers have no time to relax during a minute-long lap. Turn 3 is the key point on the track and it was here that driver Jeff Krosnoff and a race marshal were killed in a horrific accident in 1996. Since then, safety standards have been improved, but racing is still an inherently dangerous sport, both for participants and fans. Keep that in mind when attending the Honda Indy.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are concession stands around the concourse offering very little outside of hot dogs, Pizza Pizza and Dr. Pepper and other bottled drinks, all at slightly inflated prices. Inside the Direct Energy Centre however, there were a few specialty stands that provided some variety. There was a sushi spot where the rolls where made right there in front of you; I had a pedestrian tuna roll which was a bit too much at $9. There was also a crepe stand that was not cheap but might have been more satisfying.
Beer was widely available at $8.75 per tall can, typical for a Toronto event.
I have really grown to enjoy the atmosphere during a race and the Toronto Indy was no different. There were a number of pre-race ceremonies at the Victory Circle, including the introduction of the drivers. The last three included Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who was accompanied by some flames, while Dario Franchitti appeared surrounded by smoke. There was also a mascot who tossed free shirts to the crowd and appeared in many of the post-race pictures.
There is no substitute for the actual race though, and in Toronto you are right next to the track. The cars are not as loud as in Formula 1, but loud enough. I would certainly recommend earplugs although most fans went without.
Exhibition Place also houses BMO Field and Ricoh Coliseum, two other Toronto sports facilities. However, the actual grounds are devoid of bars and restaurants and so you are advised to walk up Dufferin Street if you are on the west side of the grounds. There you can find Café Jolly, a small pub that was offering a pint and panini combo for just $10. If you want to spend a longer time, move over to Bathurst Street and stop by the Wheat Sheaf Tavern, where you can people watch from the patio and enjoy a wide variety of beers on tap. Further afield are the boutique restaurants of Queen Street West, or hipster heaven as it has come to be known.
Most fans were good, wore race-related gear, had a few beers, and watched the 90-minute race intently. But I'm docking a couple of points because there were a number of obnoxious individuals, some of whom decided that yelling constantly at the photographers during the post-race ceremony would be funny (it wasn't), and others who felt that the Exhibition Place grounds were their personal garbage disposal, leaving cans, bottles, and the like scattered about despite plenty of empty garbage bins and recycling containers nearby. Clean up your act, Toronto!
The grounds are easy to get to on TTC, Toronto's local transit, with both streetcars and buses taking you there. Parking in the immediate vicinity was $25 and should be avoided, as it was difficult to get out afterwards. You might be able to find a spot in a nearby neighborhood if you are extremely diligent, but be aware that there is little free street parking in downtown Toronto, even on weekends.
Once inside the grounds, you can walk around freely for the most part, with a few areas blocked off for some reason or other, while tickets are only checked at the seating stands. The Direct Energy Center is a good place to rest up, avoid the sun and check out the Support Series Paddock with dozens of cars on display. I'm docking a point here because the official photographers blocked the post-race ceremony in Victory Circle so fans were unable to get their own pictures of a key part of the afternoon.
This event takes place over three days, with Friday being free and not requiring a ticket. Saturday sees autograph sessions, the first Star Mazda Race the Indy qualifying, and the Indy Lights race, while Sunday includes the second Star Mazda race before the main event. Tickets are somewhat expensive with the best seats going for $135 ($185 for the weekend). If you only want to stand around, you can get general admission passes for $35 ($45 for both days). I would recommend this option and using the GA section near turn 3, which likely has the most action. I found a cheap seat for Turn 9 (regularly $65) and would advise against this area, as there is no passing done there, although it is good for pictures.
The race didn't begin until 1 pm but gates opened at 8 am and I would suggest arriving early and enjoying the other things on offer until the race gets going to get the full benefit of your ticket. I am giving the ROI 3 out of 5 stars assuming you buy the GA ticket and spend most of the day at the race.
There is so much to see here over the 3-day weekend that it seems a waste showing up just for the race. The Thunder Alley area is a good spot to start, with a beer tent right next to the fastest point on the circuit. The three other races that provide opportunities to see up-and-coming drivers, while the Support Series Paddock gives fans a chance to get a close look at the cars that participate in those other races. The free handout includes a color list of each car in the race so that even novice fans can quickly learn who's who. Finally, there are massages available inside the Direct Energy Centre for those who have trouble handling the heat or just want to relax.
The Honda Indy was a good experience although I was fortunate to find a cheaper seating option as $35 for a 90-minute race is a bit much in my mind. But if you spend the full day there, or even the weekend, you should enjoy yourself with plenty to see and do. The street course is only used once a year and elements of this review may be outdated by 2013 and beyond, so do your own research before attending.
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