Dario Franchitti: Trouble in Toronto?
TORONTO -- One of North America's most successful street races celebrates a milestone this weekend.
An event that started in 1986 as the CART Molson Indy Toronto outlasted the American open-wheel war to emerge as a mainstay on the Izod IndyCar Series schedule. Now sponsored by Honda Canada, what locals have long called "the Indy" has produced 25 years of often-chaotic street course action.
Dario Franchitti knows. He earned his first CART series pole position as a rookie in 1997 but didn't make it through the first turn.
The current IndyCar Series championship leader worries the same thing could happen this year.
"Double-file restarts will be interesting here, because Turns 1 and 3 are very narrow and tight," Franchitti said. "We're definitely going to have to be less aggressive. Small mistakes will be punished, and in some cases, it could take out multiple cars.
"So, hopefully, we'll be sensible."
Franchitti's pair of Toronto wins spanned a decade, under CART sanction in 1999 and IndyCar in 2009. He enters Sunday's 85-lap race with a 20-point lead in the championship over another two-time Toronto champion, Will Power of Team Penske.
Power has been cleared to drive after suffering a minor concussion June 24 in an accident at Iowa Speedway. But one key change will occur in the Australian's pit box: Penske Racing president Tim Cindric now will call strategy for the No. 12 team after handling that responsibility for Helio Castroneves' No. 3 car since 2000.
Power was critical of his team after he was waved out of his first pit stop into a collision with rookie Charlie Kimball's pitting car. Damage from that pit-lane clash likely contributed to Power's hard Turn 2 crash later in the race.
But the accident seems to have had no lasting effect, because Power was fastest in the first practice session at Toronto, heading Target Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Franchitti.
"I've always had fun races here," said Power, who won in Champ Car in 2007 and in IndyCar last year. "I've won here, and I've dropped to the back with a flat tire and still finished third.
"This is one of the best road courses that we go to because it's all about the racing and speed and not about qualifying. If you get in trouble, you can always come back."
From a local perspective, the biggest story from the first day of the event was the performance of rookie James Hinchcliffe.
The Toronto native was fourth quickest in his Newman/Haas Racing entry sponsored by Canadian investment firm Sprott. That matched his best race result of fourth place in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The self-proclaimed "Mayor of Hinchtown" has competed on the Toronto street course in smaller formula cars and dreams of finishing on the podium Sunday.
My first IndyCar race in Toronto was 1992. I guess it puts a time stamp on me. But it's the biggest, most important race of the year for me.” -- Paul Tracy
"I'm going in with no expectations this year, but hopes are a different story," Hinchcliffe said. "I just want to see the checkered flag. If we could bring home a top-10 in the process, that would be an awesome result.
"The biggest thing for me was knowing that after 23 years of watching this race from the grandstands, I am going to have a whole new perspective on Sunday afternoon," he added.
For Tracy, 42, this will be his 18th Toronto Indy.
"It's hard to believe the race has been going on for a quarter-century," said Tracy, who won in 1993 and 2003. "My first IndyCar race in Toronto was 1992. I guess it puts a time stamp on me. But it's the biggest, most important race of the year for me. I've been fortunate I've been able to win a couple of times, finish on the podium a few times."
The Toronto race as a whole is on steadier footing than it was just a couple of years ago. In its heyday, the Molson Indy drew more than 70,000 fans on race day, but losing a year (2008) to the open-wheel unification caused attendance to drop significantly for the return in '09.
With support from Honda Canada and a cadre of associate sponsors, Green Savoree Racing Promotions has invested in the event, lining the 1.7-mile temporary course with new walls and fence that is safer and faster to erect and tear down.
But the racy Toronto track that winds through the Exhibition Place fairgrounds, with its myriad surface changes and bumps, remains unchanged -- for the better.
"This track has more bumps than most street courses so you have to get the car working, and as a driver you have to get in the rhythm as well," Franchitti said. "There is a certain rhythm that comes with a street course, and when you get into it, you can be very tough to beat."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.