Monday, July 15, 2013

Toronto Indy 2013: Day 1

I showed up for the first full day of practice and qualification at this year's Toronto Indy races intending to focus more on the various support races being run as part of the weekend - the trio of Road to Indy feeder series that move like a shadow along the Indy circuit, as well as the Pirelli World Challenge races and something called Stadium Super Trucks, about which I knew nothing at all except that it probably involved trucks.

Last year, while breaking my race coverage cherry, it was the best I could do to focus on the Indycar main event, while using the support races to practice shooting race cars. Having spent a quarter century as a photographer shooting mostly portraits, landscapes and still lifes, the challenge of shooting things moving at very near or well past a hundred miles an hour presented a learning curve. I like to think I rose to it, but as Friday's events sped past, I realized how much I still had to learn.

I missed morning practice, and working in the afternoon sun gave me some idea of how harsh a clear sky would make the weekend. I also missed the only time Indycar drivers can be found wandering pit lane openly, zipping around on their scooters and socializing with other drivers. But like I said, I wanted to spend more time checking out the weekend's other events, and savouring all the different engine notes.

Most people who hate motorsports complain about the noise, so it seems to me that if you're a race car fan, you should glory in the whole range of engine revving and unmuffled exhaust notes on offer during a big racing event like Indy. This weekend, there was a bit of everything, from the turbocharged Honda and Chevy V6s running the Indycars to the big V8s and V10s in the Pirelli GT class cars, down through the naturally aspirated V8s in Indy Lights, the Mazda Wankel rotary engines in the Pro Mazda cars, down to the V4s running the USF2000 cars and whatever's beneath the hood of the Pirelli TC class cars.

No one will deny that there's something brutally graceless in the design of current open wheel race cars, from F1 to Indy, with their profusion of wings and aero surfaces and squashed, buglike chassis covered in sponsor logos. Sponsorship is a fact of racing, but one day I'd like to hope that science and aesthetics might meet somewhere and produce an aesthetically pleasing car. In the meantime, I found my eye drawn to the cars in the USF2000 series, the lowest rung of the Road to Indy series, and one raced by drivers as young as fifteen.

They're small cars, with almost tubular bodies, long suspension struts, skinny wheels and a pair of simple wings that remind me of F1 cars at the end of the '60s, when aero was primitive and the cigar-bodied car shape of the past three decades hadn't given away to the wing-shaped cars to come. They looked agile and fun to drive, and seeing a pack of them crowd into turn one at the start of a race, they gave me some idea of what pro racing must have been like before you needed the backing of several international conglomerates to field a professional team.

As for sheer volume, the hands down winner was the Touring Car class of the Pirelli series - Mustangs and Camaros, Vipers and Audi R8s and especially the CTS V-Rs run by Cadillac Racing, which produced an unholy roar going in and out of each turn. PWC might be one of the few real "stock" car racing series running today, but it has an aura of rich guys paying for a team and even a ride for as long as their money holds out, running against a handful of factory teams with infinite resources while judges and marshalls play jiggery-pokery with the rules on each car.

That might be true for the high end GT and GTS class series, but at the low end, there are the cars racing in TC and TCB series - compact family sedans and econoboxes tricked out for racing and making you wonder if you could ever get your Yaris or Echo to hit a corner that fast.

After an afternoon spent wandering the track to the sound of roaring race engines, the PWC TC and TCB qualifying race snuck up on us all, at a fraction of the decibel level. It probably took me a lap or two to notice the Minis, Fusions, Fiat 500s and Mazda 2s tearing around corners like kids jostling each other in an egg race at the peak of a sugar rush.

There were plenty of spinouts and crashes, especially in the Road to Indy series. There's something forlorn about crashing during practice and qualifying laps, like a majestic tree falling in a forest without anyone around to witness its end. I'm sure most of these cars were back on the track the next day, but the junior series races always feel more desperate, and loaded with promising racing careers that never get started.

Finally, there was the main event. I felt bad for James Hinchcliffe; it's his hometown race, and even it's only his second year in Indycar, and one during which he's pulled off some impressive wins, you could feel the pressure on him to win at least one of the weekend's races. It wouldn't turn out that well for him, or for Dario Franchitti, who had the pole position for the first race. Scott Dixon, on the other hand, arrived in Toronto fresh from a win and high in the standings. He would have a much better weekend.

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