Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Toronto Indy 2013: Day 2, Race 1

Heading into the first race at the Toronto Honda Indy was news that the rights to run Indy Lights, the top rung of the three "Road to Indy" series, had been given to Andersen Promotions, who already run the two junior series, USF2000 and Pro Mazda. Around the media centre, everyone seemed to agree that this was a good idea, pointing to the scant field of eight cars starting on the Indy Lights grid that day.

It's hard to figure out the economics of pro racing - a constantly shifting mess of sponsors, team owners, drivers and racing series. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that no one will show up to watch the races if there are no decent drivers in the cars, and that if the junior series aren't producing enough drivers, everyone's in trouble and Target, Midas and Fuzzy Premium Vodka won't want to pay to put their names on the cars.

Hometown hero James Hinchcliffe had plenty of support in the stands and a full range of official merchandise for sale in the Indy stores behind the grandstands. It was a shame that he didn't drive a better race that day - he started in 14th place on Saturday and finished 8th, which isn't bad but isn't great. Hinch is in a quandary - he either struggles or he pulls off these showpiece wins; this might be a young driver thing, but he needs to get the consistency of someone like Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves. 

Walking the grid before the start of race one, I wondered if this was going to be a repeat of Detroit's two-fer - safe racing the first day, reckless lunges and lots of crashing the second. One thing I did know was that Toronto grid girls certainly aren't the lithe supermodel types you see holding the flags at F1 races. Provided courtesy the Toronto Sun and outfitted in miniskirts they constantly tugged to keep from riding up over their butts, they looked a bit rough, some of them showcasing collections of leg and back tattoos that telegraph "Check out my reasonable stag party rates" more than "sports glamour."

I focused on Dario Franchitti in the pole position car just before the race started, and his face was an essay in pre-race tension. I've always had a lot of time for Franchitti - he's a talented, flexible driver who's had an iffy couple of years despite last year's Indy 500 win. I wonder if he ever feels jealous of his cousin, Paul Di Resta, racing in F1. In any case he saw Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon pass him and win first, slipping down to third on the podium, where he was told just as he was about to collect his trophy that he was being penalized for blocking on a yellow flag and would drop down to thirteenth. His position was reinstated afterwards upon review, but it was still probably a day that Franchitti would like to forget.

I ended up walking the length of the track twice that day hunting for good shooting spots. No amount of sunscreen can hide the sensation that your skin is being simmered away. The corner workers and flagmen all did their jobs patiently, however, either building improvised shelters for between races or stoically turning red by their holes in the fence.

Coming back from a circuit of the outside fence, I came across Charlie Kimball and his car sitting in the run-off at turn one. He'd been involved in a crash with Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe that saw Briscoe break his wrist and Wilson earn a penalty. I thought he looked forlorn sitting on the curb by the Princes' Gates, waiting for someone to drive him back to the paddock, his race over.

Graham Rahal also didn't have a great race, getting hit and spun by Tristan Vautier and slipping down to the bottom of the standings, just in front of the four DNFs. The son of Bobby Rahal, the first winner of the Toronto race back in 1986, he knew he had less than a day to recuperate for the next day's race.

"Physically I like to think I'm one of the stronger, bigger guys, but there's no doubt that there will be a lot of people who will be sore tomorrow, and definitely sore on Monday. Because like I said  - hydrate, get a big steak, and definitely get yourself together."

Rahal's crew chief, Donny Stewart, was back at the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing garage in the paddock getting Graham's car back in shape for the race. I assumed he'd be up all night with his crew, but he was unfazed by the night's work ahead of him.

"This weekend we have a little more because we damaged the underwing in this race so we'll have to change the underwing, get our backup car out and get the underwing off that one. Swap it to this car. We'll rebuild brake calipers just because of the temperatures from when we stalled. So we'll rebuild that tonight. We'll take the gear stack out and inspect everything, do a good nut and bolt on the whole car. Change air filters. For the engine, take a good look at the exhaust."

"Preventative maintenance is the biggest thing, really. When we do a double race like this we plan ahead in terms of how much mileage we have on parts and stuff like that. So we know coming into this that we're not going to mileage out, we set ourselves up ahead of time to go into these races with no issues."

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